Out of His Furrow

William Poole

  • Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity by Gordon Teskey
    Harvard, 214 pp, £21.95, March 2006, ISBN 0 674 01069 8

All good Protestants are supposed to believe that when they read the Bible properly, the Holy Ghost assists them. So what happens when a good Protestant writes with the same assistance? Is the resulting text something like scripture? The orthodox answer would be no: the canon of scripture is closed, and the days of revelation are over. But from the middle of the 17th century onwards, people began to have problems with the idea of a closed, eternally synchronous Bible. In England, extreme radicals wrote pamphlets in which no real distinction was made between biblical quotation and biblical ventriloquism. Sprinklings of pseudo-Hebrew here and there added to the mystique. When the former army chaplain Robert Bacon visited the ‘Shakers’ God’, John Robins, in London in around 1650, he found Robins sitting on a bed before his disciples speaking in tongues: ‘But the words he spake I did not understand, only they seemed to me to be a mixture of Latin, and some other tongues (they said Hebrew) and all other Languages.’ The Quaker apologist and scholar Robert Barclay argued:

That which cannot be proved by scripture is no article of faith;

The precise canon of the Bible is not listed in the scriptures;

Therefore the received canon is no article of faith.

Such problems were not the exclusive preserve of radicals. The aristocratic evangelist and natural philosopher Robert Boyle tried to defend the scriptures by paradoxically confessing their historicity: ‘All the Parts of Scripture are useful in Some Ages, and some in All.’ Slightly later, John Locke pointed out that the letters of St Paul represent only one side of a mutilated correspondence, which would presumably make more sense had the other side survived. Some Catholic scholars, too, were querying the monolithic status of holy writ, in response to what they saw as Protestant fundamentalism. As the French Oratorian scholar Richard Simon remarked early on in a book that became a subversive classic among Catholics and Protestants alike, ‘the Books of the Bible that are come into our hands are but abridgments of the ancient Records, which were more full and copious, before the last abridgment was made for the public use of the people.’

The Bible was bursting at both ends: radicals and self-appointed prophets were adding to scripture; scholars were eroding it. These unco-ordinated interventions had immediate literary repercussions, and Milton’s Paradise Lost is the crucial text in any discussion of the relation between divine and human powers of creativity in the mid-17th century. When Milton sat down (or slept, as he claimed) to compose Paradise Lost, was he not continuing, rather than simply commenting on, the creative powers of the first author, of God himself? Was he not appropriating or even breaking free from those powers? He began his poem, after all, by calling for the help of the same Holy Ghost that daily assisted his diligent reading of the Bible in its original languages, a Holy Ghost that nevertheless turned female later in the poem:

If answerable style I can obtain
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deigns
Her nightly visitation unimplored,
And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated Verse.

This crisis in the relation between divine and human powers of creativity is the subject of Gordon Teskey’s book, which is itself occasionally hieratic. But Teskey would not phrase this crisis as I have. He prefers to voice this (nonetheless historical) moment in aesthetic terms: before Milton, poetic creativity is hallucination; Milton ushers in the age of delirium. What Teskey means by this opposition is best explained by recourse to the etymology of delirium. Delirus (‘crazy’) is a ploughing metaphor: a lira in Latin is the edge of earth thrown up by the plough that shows where to plough the next furrow; to be delirious is to depart from that guide. Hallucination, in contrast, concerns the mere creation of images and is ‘the domain of mimesis’. Hallucination therefore is ‘imaginatively stable’ whereas delirium ‘works by a kind of oscillation, a flickering on and off of hallucinatory moments in rapid succession’. The delirious writer can be said both to contain and to transcend hallucinatory poetics. Thus Milton’s and Teskey’s crises of creativity coincide because Milton, according to Teskey, is forced to ‘oscillate between two incompatible perspectives, at once affirming and denying the presence of spirit in what he creates’.

For Teskey, the exemplary poet of hallucination is Spenser, whose Fairyland is a stable heterocosm, which a reader can enter for sustained periods without undergoing any oscillatory experience. Milton’s poetics supersede this stasis: whereas Spenser thinks through layers of the past, the antiquarian rubble which he terms ‘moniments’, Milton reaches right back to the Beginning itself, ‘Messiah crowned, God’s reconciled decree,/Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,/Heaven, Hell, Earth, Chaos, all’, in Andrew Marvell’s famous summary. Yet this obsession with origins exists in tense competition with an insistent present: Paradise Lost was decades in the making, but in its final form it broods on the contemporary situation, the failure of the English Republic. Milton toned down his theological unorthodoxy in his epic, but remained outspoken in his political disappointment. Yet his roar falters in its lonely termination:

though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude.

Unlike Spenser, Milton presents us with ‘a paradise that is already lost and yet present before us’ each time we read, and this flickering is sustained into Paradise Regained, which opens on a hallucination juxtaposed with the arid desert: ‘And Eden raised in the waste wilderness.’

Despite the historically neutral terminology of ‘hallucination’ versus ‘delirium’, Teskey is making a historical claim: ‘This change began, to speak approximately, as we must, in the 17th century and may be described as the transition in the art of the West from a poetics of hallucination typical of Spenser to a poetics of delirium, inaugurated by Milton’. The West? That is a large claim.

The change Teskey claims Milton represents is not a clean break. Indeed, Milton is careful not to claim too direct access to higher things (his Celestial Patroness ‘dictates to me slumbering’). By this point in the epic (the invocation to Book Nine, the book of the Fall) his muse is female, and his inspiration is something that happened in the past, in the night-time, in his sleep. This is an important moment: what looks like a boast of effortless ability should also be read as a subtle admission that the poem is a mediated text, something Milton wrote down after contact with a higher power. ‘Sing Heavenly Muse’, the imperative at the opening of the epic, becomes a more muted, troubled plea:

unless an age too late, or cold
Climate, or Years damp my intended wing
Depressed, and much they may, if all be mine,
Not Hers who brings it nightly to my Ear.

Teskey’s thesis requires Milton to be uneasily aware that his poetics impinge on divine creativity, and this passage concedes that he is. ‘If all be mine’ he risks failure, the unassisted human voice silenced by its own age and that of the world in which it finds itself. Milton, in a moment Teskey might have mentioned, begs for passivity in the face of divine creation, yearning to be free from the pressure of human, not divine, creative power. That such an anxiety is registered so explicitly in Paradise Lost provides strong support for Teskey’s general thesis.

So did Milton manage to remain sufficiently passive? The picture of a superior being bending over the ear of a slumbering human is something we’ve encountered already in Paradise Lost, and Milton has set it up so that we cannot help thinking back to Satan at the ear of Eve:

him there they found
Squat like a Toad, close at the ear of Eve;
Assaying by his Devilish art to reach
The Organs of her Fancy, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, Phantasms and Dreams.

Note that ‘with’: the crucial recognition of collusion between supra-human and human agency. Milton’s own collusion forms the subject of one of Teskey’s central chapters, on the all-important issue of Milton and classical culture.

Paradise Lost, as Teskey observes, is a cento, a vast echo chamber of classical texts, all twisted into new shapes. Of course Milton is the one responsible for that twisting: he cannot have tolerated the notion that Christian truth requires pagan witnessing, even if he did accept the common view that pagan mythology contained garbled fragments of biblical truth. For the modern reader, such relentless classicism can cause odd problems. As David Daiches once remarked, we are often in the uncomfortable position of forming our knowledge of classical mythology by inferring from Miltonic allusion. Most modern students probably first encounter Ovid’s Narcissus through Milton’s Eve, gazing on her own reflection in a pool moments after her creation. For Teskey, this appropriation is another instance of delirium, as Milton moves towards a classical text, dismantling pieces of it, and then returns to his poem to remount them in their new home. Teskey nicely likens this to the early Christians’ practice of installing pieces of classical masonry in their churches, like the spoils of a vanquished enemy.

But is this fully ‘delirious’ in Teskey’s terms? Milton takes, the classics do not get back, and there is no further ‘oscillation’. Teskey meets this claim by noting that Milton’s verse makes it impossible to read the classics without some sense of the violence Milton has done them. Yet perhaps all of this is more complex than Teskey allows, even more ‘delirious’. Adam in Paradise Lost looks up after he is created, spontaneously eloquent in praise of his maker. Eve looks down, at herself, speechless at her own beauty. In Ovid, Narcissus is young, ‘able to be seen as either a boy or a young man’. He is also a fool, vain and deceived. He plunges his arms into the stream but cannot grasp his image. He is a victim of divine vengeance. His death is predicted by Tiresias (like Milton a blind seer), and he eventually turns into a flower. Even his name should sound suspicious – the flower named after him was supposed to deaden the senses. Eve stands in comparison to all this. She is female; she is mature and intellectually sophisticated. She is not supposed to be vain, and there is as yet no one to deceive her. Unlike Narcissus, she does not break the surface of her pool: she just looks. She is not (yet) a victim of divine vengeance: she is instead led away from her reflection and towards Adam, her truer opposite. Powerless Echo in Ovid is in Milton the Voice of the Almighty. Eve’s death may be predicted by God in Book Three, but is nevertheless supposed to be her fault. The comparison of Eve and Narcissus seems wholly negative.

But is it? There are certain properties of Narcissus which cannot transfer onto Eve, notably his gender. But what about all those other troublesome points of contact? Why would Milton go to such lengths to associate Eve with Narcissus, and neglect to assure us that Eve is not at all like him? What about Narcissus’ culpability? Eve herself says that ‘there’ – on her pool – ‘I had fixt/Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,/Had not a voice thus warned me.’ Eve, it seems, was unable to do the right thing by herself, even moments after her creation. And the skeins of Narcissistic contact spread out into the epic: Eve is throughout likened to flowers, and in one marvellous addition to the Genesis narrative she gives them their names. This is what I would call ‘delirious’, the sense that Milton’s classicism is not just a grab-the-spoils repatriation, but a genuine and anxious oscillation forced on the reader, who is unable to define precisely where the line is to be drawn in Miltonic allusion between positive and negative comparison. Grammar alone will not sort it out. In a famous negative comparison, Milton presents unfallen Eden to his fallen reader:

Not that faire field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flowers
Herself a fairer Flower by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.

And so on, through nor-that-sweet-Grove-of-Daphne, nor-that-Nyseian-isle and nor-Mount-Amara, a list of what Eden is not goes on for almost twenty lines. What are we to do? The grammar insists that we are not dealing with these things, that Eden is ‘wide remote’ from all these gardens; but who can forget that Proserpina was dragged off by Dis (Pluto), Daphne was chased by the rapist Apollo, the Nyseian isle hid the offspring of Jupiter’s adultery and so on. Milton replaces actual description of an unfallen place with a farrago of fallen gardens, all leeringly alluding to the fate of Eden, which slips by the reader, undescribed. In classical rhetoric this device is similar to occupatio, the ironic ‘let-me-not-mention’ construction, where that which is formally denied is nevertheless present (‘I do not mention his appalling dipsomania, nor his incessant womanising’). In this long negative comparison, lost Eden flickers before us, punctuated by clashing hallucinations, themselves drawn from a pagan literature that is troublingly still active, still energetic. This is what makes Milton’s epic technique so thoroughly transcendent of simplified theological gloss. As Teskey says, ‘theological concepts . . . can be useful in a general way . . . but are at best crude templates when we try to understand Milton’s poetry through them – or, worse, when we merely substitute theological concepts for understanding.’ Teskey’s ‘delirium’ is one way to avoid this problem.

So can this ‘delirium’ be aligned with the historical shift Teskey identifies? It all depends on which texts you use. Teskey chooses exclusively literary texts, often from rather different periods – Malory and Henryson, Tasso and Trissino, Baudelaire and Rimbaud – to aid his Heideggerian notion that ‘we have become increasingly aware in modernity of living in a world of our own making, an artificial, technological world, a built environment.’ If Milton’s delirious poetics is a marker of this modernity, there should be strong signals of such an attitude emerging in the wake of his writing. This may be the case in literary terms, and Teskey is surely right to see in the history of Milton’s reception a growing emphasis throughout the 18th and 19th centuries on his huge creative energy ‘set into a dubious and troublesome relation to the Creator’.

However, we could step sideways, and consider a literary project not mentioned by Teskey, but one intimately concerned with the problem of creativity: the attempt to prove or at least ‘manifest’ the existence of the Creator by means of experimentalism, natural history, and eventually Newtonian mechanics. This is the genre of ‘physico-theology’. Since Teskey mentions the importance of the emergent scientific mindset in the period, the contemporary texts which discussed the connections between the growing power of man over his environment and the power God displayed in constructing that environment deserve attention. And here there is indeed an emphasis on construction: not on the constructions of man, but rather, as the title of John Ray’s 1691 classic has it, on the Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation. This built on works by men such as John Wilkins and Robert Boyle, and was itself followed in the 18th century by strings of imitative treatises. In 1692 the Boyle Lectures were set up, in which scholars and experimentalists demonstrated the power and providence of God through an examination of the constructed nature of the world, and the work God had to do in order to maintain its order. Ray’s book had scanned God’s handiwork from the heavens to the earth. Meditating on the structure of the human eye, for instance, Ray found it ‘a part so artificially composed, and commodiously situate, as nothing can be contrived better for Use, Ornament or Security’. Such discussions were obviously relevant to contemporary notions of creativity, and it is interesting to note that the defensive, apologetic genre of physico-theology – Ray described his book as ‘rather Theological than Philosophical’ – adopted a vocabulary of construction that implicitly concedes that there has been a shift along the lines Teskey proposes. God’s workmanship may be matchless, but it is now to be understood in human terms. The microscope shows us the stupendous design of nature, but it is a nature rendered understandable by the analogy of human artifice (thus the eye is ‘artificially composed’).

Now and then Teskey courts a criticism that he wittily borrows from Byron on Coleridge – ‘Explaining metaphysics to the nation/I wish he would explain his Explanation’ – but his book is an interesting reaffirmation in today’s often contrary academic climate of a poetic approach to Milton, swiping at those who would specialise Milton studies into obscurity. He is refreshingly suspicious of narrowly historicist or theological readings and even calls Milton’s poetry ‘shamanistic’, which will have certain Miltonists choking on their historicist porridge. Perhaps we need to be told this kind of thing, and Teskey’s deep seriousness and stylistic verve is attractive. But what of his three Big Ideas: that there is a transition in Western art from a poetics of the Creator to a poetics of creators; that this transition can be mapped onto a parallel transition in poetic technique from hallucination to delirium; and that Milton is the crucial figure in these transitions, which are united in him? Teskey makes some bold and often shrewd inroads only into the first two of these huge claims; adjudication on the third depends on what larger answers are proposed to these questions.