[Milton-L] The War in Heaven

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Wed Jul 12 16:08:23 EDT 2006


I'm not sure about which camp I'm in, but I do find Empson, the
questions he raises and the things he notices in the text,
indispensable.  One of the truly great books written about the poem.

But: I don't think the question is, as Richard Strier puts it, "whether
God (as represented in the poem and perhaps in the bible)is a tyrant."
That's close to it--the representation bit is essential (and this is the
question Michael Bryson asks and attempts to answer at length in *The
Tyranny of Heaven*, positing as he must a radically heterodox Milton--a
Milton more heterodox than Empson's in fact).  The real question is
whether or not there is a God at all.  If you answer, "there is no God,"
then any God someone might posit (the omnipotent and just kind, that is)
is going to be a tyrant, His authority based on a lie.  If there's no
*absolute* authority--Milton believed there was none *among human
beings*, but that's a different thing--then the idea of God at the heart
of the great monotheistic traditions has to be, as Empson believed it
was, an abomination.  

I agree with Empson that this was a problem of great importance to
Milton, and that in response to it he was willing to modify, perhaps
unconsciously or perhaps simply in the heat of his poetic imagination,
some of the traditional claims about divine omnipotence.  The struggle
and the question is alive in his paradoxes, which I think Harold
captured beautifully a few posts back:

"I don't see how anyone can disagree that PL 6 is a paean to power--in
fact, to the sole source of power in the universe as Milton assumes it
to be; and also a paean to the sole ground  of justice; and also a paean
to the sole author of every physical and mental excellence in his
defeated challenger--again on Milton's explicit and oft-repeated
assumptions. If PL 6 weren't a metaphysically complicated paean to all
these attributes and more, Milton (given his politics) wouldn't be
singing it, and inviting us to sing along."

If, on the other hand, your answer (or your sense of Milton's answer) is
that there is a God, then you have to enter the paradoxes of Milton's
"metaphysically complicated paean."  You can't just sit on the sidelines
as an interpreter/reader, although you're free to internalize your
interpretations as much or a little as you like). The question becomes,
"how far, given what the text says and what we can make of it, can we go
in the direction of a Milton who modified orthodox monotheism?"  I think
we can go some distance down that road, although not as far as Michael
allows himself (I'm grateful for his license and his urgency about
it--the book often makes for some heady reading--but he finally goes
farther, in my opinion, than the text comfortably allows).  

I think Milton held on to the notion that the power he represents in
Book VI and elsewhere in *PL* was indeed the sole source of power and
authority in the universe as he conceived of it.  He believed there was
such a sole source, that it only superficially resembled its earthly and
Satanic avatars ("pseudo-avatars," I suppose, really), and that it did
require submission and obedience.  Neither of those last things is easy
for creatures to do or get right, however.  That's the two-fold darkness
of not being God and trying to gaze at Him and follow his will.  The
problem with the simple and tidy version of Lewis' orthodox position is
that it is simply simpler and more tidy than Milton's poem (Lewis
himself only sometimes leaned toward the simple and tidy; at other
times--particularly, I think, when he was writing fiction rather than
criticism--his vision of Milton was as rich and complex as any).  The
problem with the extreme version of Empson's position, on the other
hand, is that it tends to forget how important holding on to God was for
Milton (I don't think that Empson himself forgot that, but he does
sometimes lose patience with this part of Milton's sensibility).  

Michael's book points in a more fruitful direction, although as I said,
I think he goes too far in imagining the God that Milton does hold onto.
My own position would be that, for Milton, God's will is indeed
discovered in the believing creature's heart, but even in that heart His
will is still driving that chariot (destroying, yes, but--as Michael
Gillum put it so nicely earlier in this discussion--also healing).  How
this violence can be healing, since the violence of absolute power is so
obvious, is the central question that follows upon the question, "is
there a God?" (or a God of the sort in which Milton was taught to
believe--a God he is struggling to affirm at a high pitch of poetic
intensity that does not lie about the violence of His power. It's out of
that struggle toward affirmation that the more difficult, and in the
full sense *terrific,* aspects of the poem's portrayal of divine power
emerged).  Milton sings darkling and darkly when he sings of power, but
he does sing, and the song is praise, not a catcall nor a vision of God
who has abdicated His throne--

at least not yet......

L.  


===========================
Louis Schwartz
Associate Professor of English
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA  23173
(804) 289-8315
lschwart at richmond.edu
 
 
 

-----Original Message-----
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
[mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Richard Strier
Sent: Tuesday, July 11, 2006 8:15 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] The War in Heaven

Some remarks from the Empson camp:

1) It's hardly useful to be informed that to rebel against a tyrant 
is good, whereas to rebel against God is bad-- when the whole issue 
is whether God (as represented in the poem and perhaps in the bible) 
is a tyrant.  (Note:  Tyrants think their will is law; tyrants are 
capricious; tyrants enjoy exercising their power.)

2) There's a large amount of nasty jeering at Satan in the poem for 
not understanding that "omnipotent" really means "stronger than 
everybody."  Hah, hah-- you lose!  (God smiting his enemies [and 
laughing them to scorn in the process] is one of the nastier strains 
in the Hebrew bible-- picked up  in some of the most unpleasant 
moments in the Christian continuation).

3) Yes, PL tries to back off from the display of Power as sheer force 
which we (undoubtedly) get at the end of the War.  Book VII gives us 
Creation, but its strong Lucretian dimension makes its picture of 
this cosmic process very different from the decree model in Genesis 
(which is the true counterpart to the  smiting alluded to above).

Just to keep things lively (since the pornography discussion died down)!

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