[Milton-L] Abdiel, reflection, etc.

Watt, James jwatt at butler.edu
Wed Jun 25 20:23:48 EDT 2008

Dear Richard Strier:

No apologies necessary.  I include the following from
Wislawa Szymborska just in case you don't already
know it.  She addresses the relation between thought
and the divine as economically as J.M. and, I think, in
a manner that would have delighted him


We have a soul at times.
No one's got it nonstop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for a while
only in childhood's fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off duty.

It's picky:
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

I agree.  Actually talking about poetry is a joy.  Next to hearing it
or reading it to oneself and realizing there are thousands of
others reading there, too, talking about poetry is not so bad.

Literary criticism?  That's another conversation altogether.


Jim Watt
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of richard strier [rastrier at uchicago.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 7:10 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Abdiel, reflection, etc.

This is a reply to Michael Gillum's initial posting.

First, I congratulate him for getting the Milton list
actually to talk about the poetry.

As to the statements by Ann, they seem to me to fall into the
kind of moralizing that disfigures much Milton (and other)
criticism.  The mode, unfortunately, is very familiar, and it
is not surprising (again, unfortunately) that she adopts it,
but, like so much of such moralizing, the claims involved are
based on sloppy reading and unexamined assertions.

Sloppy reading:  "he [Abdiel]did follow Satan initially."
This is true, but does not in any sense cast negative light
on Abdiel's character.  Abdiel only followed Satan under the
impression that Satan was going to the North "there to
receive / Fit entertainment to receive our King / The great
Messiah" (V.689-91).  This is repeated at V.768-9,
"[Satan]Pretending [that his troops were] so commanded to
consult / About the great reception of thir King."  As soon
as Satan reveals his actual motives -- to rebel against the
new command of adoration ("Knee-tribute") imposed on the
angels -- Abdiel protests.  He speaks up in a fury of
righteous indignation.  I have no idea what "he is more
zealous than brilliant" is supposed to mean.  It seems pretty
clear that Milton intends Abdiel to be making good points
here (whether we have to agree is a different matter).  But
worst of all is the premise that "an interior monologue [is]
a mark of fallen subjectivity."  No argument for this is
given.  It is clearly simply adopted, without question, from
other critics.  How "interior monologue" is even involved
here, since Abdiel is presented as speaking out, is one
question, but much more important is why Milton should be
imagined to have thought that the capacity for reflection is
fallen.  This is quite an astonishing claim.  God seems to
encourage such a capacity in Adam, as does Raphael.  To think
that Milton imagined innocence as devoid of the capacity for
reflection is to fall into silly stuff along the "felix
culpa" lines (psychologically).  Milton's amazing achievement
is to have presented unfallen life as the fullest -- most
sensually and sexually enjoyable, noble, and intellectually
alive -- form of human life (given that initially there are
only two people involved) that he can imagine.  The power of
the poem, as its title asserts, is in its evocation of what
we have lost.  Moralizing about sin before the fall is to
miss the daring and originality and beauty of what Milton has
done.  Or so I think.  (I apologize to anyone who has already
said any or all of this.)

Richard Strier
Department of English
University of Chicago
1115 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
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