[Milton-L] Rev. of Milton and Seventeenth-Century Women

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Fri Feb 13 15:22:11 EST 2009

Shannon Miller.  Engendering the Fall: John Milton and
Seventeenth-Century Women Writers.  Philadelphia  University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2008.  viii + 280 pp.  $65.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Rebecca Mills (Hillsborough Community College)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser

No More Anxiety: The Influence on/of Paradise Lost is a "Tapestry"

_Engendering the Fall_ is a must read for scholars of John Milton and
seventeenth-century women writers.  In this feminist critique of
_Paradise Lost_ (1667), Shannon Miller reconsiders this epic in
interesting and innovative ways, but her main focus is the dialectic
manner in which women and Milton anticipated, influenced, and
conversed with each other throughout the seventeenth century.
Despite the chronological organization of her text, Miller argues
that influence on/of _Paradise Lost_ should not be viewed as a single
line, but "instead like a tapestry, many strands of individual thread
producing a pattern only observable from a distance" (p. 6).

In "Pretexts," Miller considers how Rachel Speght, Ester Sowernam,
and Aemilia Lanyer influenced Milton's poetry, particularly _Paradise
Lost_.  Because of a shortage of material evidence, she often refers
to this influence as a "conversation" and does so mainly in the
subjunctive mood (p. 48).  In chapter 1, Miller argues that the
language of the antifeminist pamphlet wars, sparked by Joseph
Swetnam's _The Arraignment of Lewd,_ _Idle, Froward, and_
_Unconstant_ _Women_ (1610), influenced Milton's dialogues in
_Paradise Lost_, especially the conversations between Adam and Eve.
She pays particular attention to Swetnam's respondents, Speght and
Sowernam, and the potential influence they may have had on Milton.
Although Miller's theory would have been more convincing with some
material evidence of this alleged influence--Miller herself laments
the lack of "irrefutable evidence"--she still makes some connections
between the antifeminist debates of the early seventeenth century and
Milton's _Paradise Lost_ (p. 21).  The language Milton used in his
dialogues between Adam and Eve could have been lifted out of earlier
debates.  She points out that because Milton dramatized the language
of the antifeminist debates, both sides of the debates can be found
in Milton's epic.  Milton seemed to borrow the innovations of Speght
and Sowernam in his narrative before the Fall and in Eve's defense,
but Milton also seemed to incorporate Swetnam's language in Adam's
criticism of Eve after the Fall.  Miller's assertions gain strength
when she points out textual connections; for instance, Adam's
post-Fall tirade not only matches Swetnam's text in content but also
matches it in cadence.  Adam's complaint is "ugly" and rambling, very
similar to the style of antifeminist tracts.  The real strength of
this chapter is that Miller does not attempt to classify Milton as
either a feminist or a misogynist, but rather outlines the
"polyvocal" nature of _Paradise Lost_ when it comes to women (p. 23).

According to Millerin her second chapter, Miltonalso seemed to have a
"conversation" with his predecessor,Lanyer.  Although there is only a
tentative material connection between the two poets, Miller asserts
that there are linguistic connections between Lanyer and Milton,
particularly in their passion poems, as seen in Lanyer's _Salve Deus
Rex Judaeorum_ (1611) and Milton's unfinished "The Passion" (1630).
Milton's "Passion" is often compared to other passion poems written
my male writers, but Miller convincingly argues that "only Milton and
Lanyer position themselves through spatial narratives of perspectival
locations" (p. 56).  Again, when focusing on textual connections,
Miller points out significant links between Milton and early
seventeenth-century women writers.

In "Contexts," Miller discusses women writing between 1620and 1670,
starting, in chapter 3, with the explosion of women prophets in the
1640s and 1650s.  She sees the conventions and tropes of the female
prophets incorporated in the invocations of _Paradise Lost_; although
Miller believes that Milton did this subconsciously after his
political situation changed in 1660.  The textual links that Miller
discusses are the strongest part of her argument; however, the
material link between Milton and the texts by women prophets is
hardly tenuous since he was well positioned to have encountered such
writing during the protectorate.  Also intriguing is Miller's
discussion late in chapter 3 of pregnancy and monstrous births as
motifs that influenced Milton's construction of Sin and Death in book
2 of _Paradise Lost_.  For Miller, the "voices" of prophets,such as
Elizabeth Poole and Anna Trapnel, come alive as they "echo through"
Milton's epic (p. 105).

Miller "reverses the direction of 'influence'" in chapter 4 when she
considers how Lucy Hutchinson reacted to, and in a sense rewrote,
_Paradise Lost_ in her poem _Order and Disorder_ (p. 107).  Despite
the fact that Milton and Hutchinson were parliamentarians, the latter
still seemed to take issue with aspects of Milton's epic.  In
responding to _Paradise Lost_, Hutchinson reworked the Genesis story
to highlight the significance of maternal events that become more
positive in comparison to Sin's experience in _Paradise Lost_.  In
addition, Miller argues that Hutchinson rewrote the narrative of the
Genesis to ensure that Adam and Eve shared"dominion" through their
marriage and children.  As Miller says, "Hutchinson's treatment of
the marriage ceremony in _Order and Disorde_r illustrates her
engagement with the complicated question of contractual
relationships," both personal and public (p. 119).  In her attempts
to counter a genetic theory of government organization found in the
likes of Sir Robert Filmer and other patriarchalists, Hutchinson's
poem anticipatedJohn Locke's _Two Treatises_.

The focus of chapter 5 is how Margaret Cavendish politicized the
acquisition of knowledge in comparison to Milton, although influence
is not something that Miller asserts in either direction because
_Paradise Lost_ and _Blazing World_ (1666) were written around the
same time.  Despite their different political views (Cavendish was a
Royalist), both of their Garden narratives "interrogate the
relationship between scientific knowledge, political stability, and
the foundational nature of gender in that relationship" (p. 167).

In "Influences," Miller turns the reader's attention to Mary, Lady
Chudleigh, Mary Astell, and Aphra Behn, who explored the topic of
marriage in the context of the last two decades of the seventeenth
century.  Miller's chapter 6 discussion of Chudleigh's poem the _Song
of Three Children Paraphras'd_ (1703) is entirely original, making
connections between Chudleigh and Milton that have gone unnoticed by
other scholars.  Although Miller makes a case for Chudleigh's "Tory
qualifications" not being as solid as Astell's, it is debatable
whether or not Chudleigh shared Milton's politics (p.175).  However,
I concur with Miller: Chudleigh is "neither an insignificant echo of
Astell nor a dismissible writer of 'Drydeniana'" (p. 175).  Miller's
discussion of Behn and Astell is the content of chapter 7.  For
Miller, Behn negotiatedand parodiedthe "severability" of marriage in
_Love-Letters_ _between a Nobleman and His Sister_(1684), and
ultimately eroticizedthe Garden (p. 207).  Astell chastised Milton
and rewrote the Garden narrative in _A Serious Proposal_ (1694) so
that knowledgewas no longer a temptation, but rather a way in which
women were able to focus on internal beauty.  As Miller points out,
knowledge and intellectual endeavors were for Astell not as dangerous
for women as courtship and marriage.

The breadth of Miller's discussion is impressive in this
well-researched and innovative text.  Scholars and teachers of
seventeenth-century literature will not be disappointed with Miller's
reassessment of Milton, particularly of _Paradise Lost_, and the
women writers who came before and after him.

Citation: Rebecca Mills. Review of Miller, Shannon, _Engendering the
Fall: John Milton and Seventeenth-Century Women Writers._. H-Albion,
H-Net Reviews. February, 2009.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=22851

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