[Milton-L] O Eve, in evil hour...

John Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Wed Nov 16 22:11:06 EST 2005

Carl Bellinger writes:

> A) OK, we have Satanic puns (and wordplay of various sorts) of the fallen 
> beings, and puns of Milton and his divine Muse. Are these two 
> possibilities the entire taxonomy? Is there any middle ground?

Ricks finds a middle ground in the following lines from book nine, which 
occur just after the serpent has led Eve to the forbidden tree.  Eve has not 
yet eaten the apple, and is disappointed to find that the tree is the one 
tree from which she cannot eat.  She says:

        Serpent, we might have spared our coming hither,
        Fruitless to me, though fruit be here to excess.  (IX 647-8)

Ricks hears two puns, one an overt jingle ("Fruitless . . . fruit"), the 
other a more sombre and muted play on "excess."  Both puns are ominous, but 
neither is "Satanic," since Eve has not yet fallen and as yet has no intent 
to fall.  Ricks locates both puns in the "middle ground," then, but he also 
distinguishes them by attributing them to two different voices.  He 
attributes the pun on "Fruitless" to Eve, but the pun on "excess" to 
Milton's own voice.  "The jaunty directness of fruitless/fruit," he writes, 
"would have been alien to the poet, but it is dramatically apt to Eve.  Her 
levity at such a moment is tragic--which makes it rather misleading of Mr. 
Prince to describe it as one of Milton's 'sports.'  Unlike Eve, Milton takes 
*fruit* too seriously, from the very first line of his epic, to be willing 
to sound brash about the fact that actions have consequences" (Milton's 
Grand Style, p. 73).  Ricks hears a very different tone in "excess": 
"'Fruitless to me, though Fruit be here to *excess*:  that pun is made by 
Milton.  Eve means no more than to be wittily disgruntled.  Milton reminds 
us, again in ominous silence, that she speaks more truly than she realizes, 
that there is indeed 'fruit to excess.'  It will not be long before we see 
Adam and Eve 'bewailing thir excess'" (Milton's Grand Style, p. 74).

    I have quoted Ricks at length because I want to do justice to the 
subtlety and richness of his criticism.  He certainly sees much more than a 
blunt binary between "Satanic puns" and "puns of Milton and his divine 
Muse."  Carl is right to be suspicious of that binary, but Ricks at least is 
not guilty of it (though I still think he is right to attribute the 
"Eve"/"evil" pun to fallen Adam.)  Some might think that Ricks is too 
confident in attributing the "Fruitless" pun to Eve and the "excess" pun to 
Milton.  How can we know which pun belongs to which voice?  I agree that 
there is a danger of presumption here, but in this case the text supports 
Ricks's reading.  If Eve were knowingly punning on "excess" as "sinful 
indulgence," the implication would be that she has already decided to fall. 
But  the whole point of her pun on "Fruitless" is that she does *not* intend 
to eat the apple--not yet.  As she speaks these lines, she honestly believes 
that she will walk away and leave the fruit unplucked and untasted.  When 
she says "to excess" she means no more than "in abundance."  But the other 
sense undercuts her with poignant dramatic irony.  Ricks may sound 
overconfident in the way he uses the name "Milton" ("that pun is made by 
Milton"), and some critics might object that authors (if they even exist) 
cannot be pinned down so easily.  But has there ever been a richer, more 
persuasive reading of those two lines than the reading Ricks offers?  He not 
only distinguishes the tone of the two puns, he does so in a way that 
carefully navigates the ethical issues, preserving Eve's innocence while 
acutely pinpointing her danger.  Most impressively, he demonstrates that 
Milton's voice is all the more audible for being muted ("again in ominous 

    I had thought that Milton's Grand Style was one of the most widely known 
works of Milton criticism, but it would seem from some of the comments 
recently posted to the list that many Miltonists have either not read it or 
have forgotten how good it is. Stanley Fish once told me that he thought 
Ricks's *Milton's Grand Style* and Arthur Barker's *The Puritan Dilemma* the 
two best books on Milton ever written.  I suspect that both books tend to 
get overlooked these days because they are old.  This is a pity because 
young Miltonists especially could learn a lot from these two books.

John Leonard

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