[Milton-L] Paradise Lost and Epic Catalogs
durocher at stolaf.edu
Tue Dec 21 11:52:21 EST 2004
In response to Nick Dodd's question about PL 1 and the parade of devils:
First, how wonderful that your question elicited, among other apt
remarks, Mario di Cesare's brilliant and magisterial post! What a gift
Mario has given us all in his thorough, nuanced, and judicious response
to the proem of PL 9, and in particular to its engagement with the epic
tradition! This is what it means to have a master spirit touch on a
critical issue and give an exemplary, informative reading. My little
bark will attempt something less heroic.
I wanted to respond particularly to Nick's questions about a) the
appropriateness of seeing the parade of devils as a case of Milton
invoking the classics, and b) the issue of veracity such allusions
raise, along with his call for useful bibliography.
a) Without question, the list (or procession, or parade) of devils in
PL 1 alludes to the epic tradition of naming a catalog of warriors.
Your instincts, Nick, are absolutely right there, and you can usefully
place alongside Milton's list precursor catalogs in Homer, Virgil, and
Ovid. Along with the evident similarities (invocation of the muse;
telling who first, who last; the drama or sequence of each list), you
and your students will quickly recognize important differences: among
them, the point that the names in Homer and Virgil would correspond
with family names among the bard's original audience (and would thus be
highly honorific), whereas the devils are worshipped under their names
as pagan deities (highly suspect for the "fit audience" of Milton's
b) The question of veracity is natural and carries far-reaching
significance. With Mario, I would urge resisting the tendency to
reduce the question to a binary opposition, particularly one that
yields the simple answer that, in PL, classical figures signify evil.
Yet Milton does warn repeatedly, and in several ways, that the
classical myths yield only a kind of dim, partial, or indirect
illumination of ultimate Truth. The narrator in the epic is
particularly careful to qualify the truth value of several overt uses
of classical matter, such as the Hephaestus or Mulciber myth ("Thus
they relate, / Erring, for he with this rebellious rout / Fell long
before) toward the end of Book 1, and the direct allusion to Deucalion
and Pyrrha at the beginning of Book 11 ("th' ancient Pair / In Fables
old, less ancient yet than these [Adam and Eve]"). In both of those
cases, the biblical story enjoys truth thanks to its temporal priority.
Yet the ancient myths are not, in my view, simply rejected or exploded
as worthless: obviously Milton keeps using them. More than that, the
narrator says so, describing Eden in Book Four as the place where he
finds the "Hesperian Fables true, / If true, here only, and of
delicious taste." I have written about this in MILTON AND OVID, but
there are many valuable critical resources one might consult. A list
follows, with apologies to those of my classically minded colleagues
whom I will inadvertently leave out of this illustrious catalog:
c) 1. Thomas Greene, THE LIGHT IN TROY, with its useful
discrimination of four kinds of allusions Renaissance writers make to
the classics, Milton's in PL being in Greene's view "heuristic
imitation," in which the later writer underscores the historical
limitations of the earlier myth or text.
2. Gordon Campbell's "Catalog of the Winds," Milton Quarterly 18
(1984): 125-28. Exactly what you are looking for as far as the issues
go, though on a different catalog.
3. John Steadman, MILTON"S BIBLICAL AND CLASSICAL IMAGERY, or indeed
almost any of Steadman's books.
4. Francis Blessington, PARADISE LOST AND CLASSICAL EPIC, which
students are likely to find most accessible among the scholarly works.
5. John Mulryan, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, which offers a learned and
insightful approach to the veracity issue.
6. Stella Revard has a newer essay on the progress of the four proems
(forgive me, Stella, can you give the reference?) that extends,
sharpens, and refines the classic work by John Diekhoff on the
same--both of these exploring further aspects of Milton's engagement
with classical authorities in the proems to Books 1, 3, 7, and 9, in
their own masterly ways, complementing Mario's post with which I began.
St Olaf College
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