[Milton-L] Milton and the Classics

Mario DiCesare dicesare1 at mindspring.com
Tue Dec 21 04:47:02 EST 2004

Dear Colleagues,

I'd like to second Peter Herman's observation about not making
iron-clad distinctions between "true" and "false", and to expand it. The
simplistic notion that the classics taught evil and the Bible taught 
good has undermined a good deal of otherwise intelligent criticism of
_Paradise Lost_, and missed the power, subtlety, and significance of
its entanglement with the classical epics.

Let me comment, regrettably but necessarily at some length, on the
Proem to _PL_ IX to illustrate my points -- and to argue against the
binary notions argued by Philip Gallagher, with his usual generous
enthusiasm, and seconded by Samuel Smith.

The Proem contains rich and troublesome allusions to the epic tradition:

                         Sad task, yet argument
    Not less but more Heroic than the wrath
    Of stern Achilles on his Foe pursu'd
    Thrice Fugitive about Troy Wall; or rage
    Of Turnus for Lavinia disespous'd,
    Or Neptune's ire or Juno's, that so long
    Perplex'd the Greek and Cytherea's Son.... (IX.13-19)

Reflecting on events both past and future in these packed lines, the
narrator addresses both himself and us as audience, inviting --
_requiring_ -- us to reflect on the three great epics and take them on
their own terms.

The first thing to notice is the density of mythological references.
Most mythological names occurring in _PL_ and providing it with
splendid effects of erudition, euphony, and breadth are of minor
figures -- Pomona, Maia, Pandora, Delia, Proteus. In this passage, we
have the densest use of direct, obtrusive, attention-demanding allusion
in the whole poem. The names used here rarely recur elsewhere:
Achilles, Turnus, Lavinia, Neptune, and "Cytherea's son" occur only
here; "the Greek," Odysseus, is referred to as Ulysses in _PL_ II and
as Laertes' son later in _PL_ IX; "Juno" figures in the simile at _PL_
IV. 499f, but nowhere else.

The lines have an intricate series of internal balances: stern Achilles,
raging Turnus, irate Neptune and Juno on one side, and the victims --
"his Foe, " "Lavinia, " "the Greek, " "Cytherea's son" -- on the other.
But Lavinia's victim-hood is not the result of Turnus's rage, and
Achilles and Turnus even in their wrath are not commensurate with
irate Neptune or Juno. The narrator does not portray Achilles as a
brutal butcher; the text eschews the ferocity of the scene, notorious
in mythology and in _Aeneid_ I.483f and II.278f, of Achilles dragging
the corpse around the walls of Troy. The epithet "stern" is true to the
Achilles of the _Iliad_. The "rage of Turnus" similarly reflects care:
"rage" evokes rich echoes -- of Turnus's _violentia_, his _ira_, his
_ardor_ -- but "Lavinia disespous'd" fully justifies it. The line evokes
the contexts of the promised marriage, the betrothal of Turnus and
Lavinia, running through _Aeneid_ VII-XII (and even foreshadowed in
VI). Book XII begins with Lavinia's blushing love and Turnus's bold
agreement to give up Lavinia should he lose (17: in a passage in
which Turnus defines himself as the single man trying to save a whole
people). The phrase is echoed in the concluding line of his second
speech: "illo quaeratur coniunx Lavinia campo" (XII.80), and at the
very end of the book, in his final surrender to Aeneas and to death:
"tua est Lavinia coniunx" (XII.937). The haunting rhythm of the
phrase resounds and surrounds the whole of that great book.

The third and fourth direct references present the wrathful gods, in
neat symmetry with the heroes -- "Neptune's ire, or Juno's... / the
Greek and Cytherea's son." Thus the travails of Odysseus and Aeneas
are balanced with the sufferings of Hector and Lavinia, as well as with
the wrath and rage of Achilles and Turnus. The allusions to Neptune
(i.e., Poseidon of the _Odyssey_) and to Juno are large but clear
enough; we need merely dwell on _Odyssey_ I.20 or 72f and _Aeneid_
I.3 and I.11. Latinizing Poseidon was common enough in the
seventeenth century, but Milton's knowledge of Greek and his
prosodic skill may well suggest that the Neptune reference does
double duty. In the numinous vision which Venus allows Aeneas in
_Aeneid_ II, she removes the cloud of human blindness, so that he can
see clearly that "divum inclementia, divum, / ...sternit a culmine
Troiam" (II.602). The first two he sees there (the others are Pallas and
Jupiter) are Neptune and Juno; Neptune is destroying the walls of the
city ("totamque a sedibus urbem / eruit") while Juno, "saevissima, "
summons the enemy to the gate (II.608-614). In a bitter echo, Aeneas
epitomizes the scene:

    Tum vero omne mihi visum considere in ignis
    Ilium et ex imo verti _Neptunia Troia_ (624-625; emphasis added)

These suggestions may give even more point to "ire," for _ira_ marks
the whole first book of the _Aeneid_ in startling ways and then recurs
as leitmotif in the rest of the poem. Juno's ire, more than Neptune's,
is the source of Aeneas's suffering. But there is yet another source,
reflected in the periphrastic "Cytherea's son." That phrase has
multiple resonances of paradoxical significance. First, presented as
parallel to Juno, "Cytherea" suggests that the conflict between Juno
and Venus persists and is one of the reasons for Aeneas's "perplexity"
throughout much of the _Aeneid_. Further, the very fact that he is
"Cytherea's son" is itself a direct source of his suffering. Vergil uses
the name or epithet at crucial points in Aeneas's troubled career --
e.g., at IV.128, as Juno and Venus agree to bring Dido and Aeneas
together in the cave; or at V.800, when Neptune is demanding his
victim Palinurus as payment for safe passage. The appellation
Cytherea is used twice in Book I -- at the beginning of Jupiter's grand
prophecy to Venus (I.257), which slides by the death of Aeneas as it
rushes on to reaffirm the glories of dynasty, glories which Cytherean
Venus happily accepts, with no place for compassion; that harsh fact
is highlighted by the juxtaposition of this soaring prophecy with two
moving glimpses of Aeneas's human perplexity, bracketing the
prophecy (I.208ff. and I.305f.), as he worries about his missing
comrades. The Olympian plotters pay no heed to his anguish.
Cytherean Venus plots again, towards the end of Book I, in that little
game she plays substituting Cupid for Ascanius. She plays a great
deal, in fact; in a central passage (I.314ff.), she comes to Aeneas in
huntress guise and toys with him (even while providing him important
information), and then returns laeta to Paphos (her other abode,
besides Cythera). Aeneas's outburst at her coldness reflects his pain
and perplexity:

    "quid natum totiens, crudelis tu quoque, falsis
    ludis imaginibus? cur dextrae iungere dextram
    non datur ac veras audire et reddere voces?" (I.407-409)

I have put the case strongly for two reasons. In the first place, the
suffering of these heroes, and especially Aeneas, is still not a major
theme of some epic criticism. In the second place, that suffering itself
is something of a mystery, as _PL_ IX.14-19 shows. Whether the
suffering is the clearly delineated story of Aeneas or Odysseus, or the
justified wrath of Turnus and Achilles, or the victim-status of Hector
or Lavinia, the _irae_ that dwelled in "heavenly breasts" puzzled and
troubled Vergil himself.

The indubitable sympathy we find in _PL_ IX.14-19 (as elsewhere) for
human tribulation must give the reader pause. The poet of _PL_ finds
his "Sad task" to be not only man's revolt but also Heaven's "Anger"
and the judgment which "brought into this World... / Sin and her
shadow Death." The three realms of the poem are united in this
proposition, pointing to Fall, Judgment, and the arrival of Sin and
Death, in books IX and X. A logical argument might wipe out these
problems -- e.g., the poem justifies the ways of God to man by
showing us graphically that man deserved what he got. Such an
argument makes reading the poem neither necessary nor useful. In
human experience, however, the ways of god, or God, to man are a
mystery; the epic poets, most of all perhaps, struggled with that

It may be objected that too much weight is being accorded lines
14-19. I do not think so; certainly, I give them no more weight than
we commonly give to the brief passage on models in _The Reason of
Church Government_. The dignity of these lines, the obvious care
expended on them, and their patent richness demand such weight. So
does the frame in which they are placed -- between "argument / Not
less but more Heroic..." and "If answerable style I can obtain..." I
would argue in fact that the lines have been overburdened as citation
rather than as evocative allusion; too many critics treat them as
cursory references to dead and sterile documents, not as the
poet-narrator's voice singing within a living tradition to which he
hopes to belong.

Many critics have also misjudged the challenge here. Some
understanding of the rich and complex allusions in _PL_ IX.14-19 may
give proper perspective on larger meanings. I suggest the following, as
a start. Counterpointing suffering and divine ire in the ancient epics,
the narrator suggests a notion of "Heroic" there, parallelling that to
the theme just announced -- the "tragic" "notes" of Man's revolt and
of Heaven's "distance and distaste, / Anger and just rebuke, and
judgement." While his argument hopes to be "more Heroic," he gives
us no cause to think the ancient epic suffers by parallel. (Quite the
contrary. In IX.25-39, we will feel some rebuke. That passage is full
of scorn for many of the Christian writers of chivalric romances --
which is another subject, though not unrelated. But I have gone on
long enough.)

Does _PL_ IX.14-19 suggest that the human beings in _PL_ might also
be the victims of divine ire? It would appear so.

I apologize for going on at such length; Milton's poem demands that
we look at his text and his tradition with great care.

Mario A. Di Cesare

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