[Milton-L] "As by his Word . . ."

John Leonard jleonard at uwo.ca
Sun Feb 13 15:48:06 EST 2011

The usual view (following DDC) is that "begot" in 5.603 has the metaphorical sense "exalted" or "made him a king."  If that is right, the Son would have been literally begotten  before the creation of the angels (whom he created) and the poem is rescued from contradiction.  Empson in Some Versions (but not Milton's God) thought that Milton flatly contradicted himself on the timing of the Son's literal begetting.  If "begot" has its literal sense at 5.603, the Son would be younger than the angels whom he supposedly created.  Empson in 1935 was unaware of Sir Herbert J. C. Grierson's (re)discovery of the figurative meaning of "begot."  Grierson announced his discovery in a 1926 review of Saurat's 1925 book, but many critics (including Empson) either missed this review or failed to realize its importance.  Grierson repeated the point in Milton and Wordsworth (1937) and it quickly gained acceptance.  Lewis in 1942 was aware of Grierson's breakthrough, as was Empson by 1961.

Grierson is almost certainly right, but some problems still remain.  First, Satan seems to use "begot" in its literal sense when (answering Abdiel) he claims to be "self begot" (5.860), just a few lines after Abdiel has referred to the "only begotten Son" (835).  It is hard to believe that Satan's "begot" does not connect in some way with Abdiel's (and God's) use of the same word, even though Satan seems to be using it in a different sense.  Satan's primary (and possibly only) meaning is "come into being."  Another difficulty, much debated by critics (especially Waldock and Steadman) is the fact that Abdiel, a relatively minor angel, seems to be privy to information that the other angels do not have.  Satan dismisses the doctrine of the angels' creation by the Son as Word of God as a "strange point and new!"  Waldock in 1947 insisted that the doctrine must indeed be new, or Satan could not in full assembly say that it was.  Milton never explains how Abdiel came by this "titbit of information" (the phrase is Waldock's).  Steadman replies that Abdiel intuits his creatureliness (as Adam will subsequently do in book eight), but it still seems strange that no angel intuited the Son's role as creator before Satan rebelled.  It is also unclear whether the angels were unaware of the Son's very existence before God issued his decree or simply unaware of his true status.  In either case, it is not clear why God has been so secretive.

John Leonard
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Horace Jeffery Hodges 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Sunday, February 13, 2011 3:13 PM
  Subject: [Milton-L] "As by his Word . . ."

  I've been convinced of Milton's Arianism by Michael Bauman and other scholars, but I do wonder what to make of this passage in PL 5.833-838, where Abdiel maintains that the begotten Son made the angels (even though God had earlier announced the begetting of his Son to the assembled angels):

    Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
    Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
    Equal to him begotten Son, by whom [ 835 ]
    As by his Word the mighty Father made
    All things, ev'n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav'n
    By him created in thir bright degrees,

    [Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, February 2011.]

  I speculate a bit on my blog:


    The begotten Son was the one "by whom / As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things." This line can be read as distinguishing between two states of the Word of God: a pre-sonship state and a sonship state, differentiated by the event of being begotten. If so, then for Milton, 'divine sonship' is a role taken on by the eternal Word of God in the act of being begotten by God Himself, who (I presume) becomes the Father at that point. This reading of Milton raises the question as to what Milton thought the act of begetting to mean. I haven't looked into that yet, but perhaps Milton thought that the Word was a power of God that became hypostasized through an emanation of God's own substance, but I'm merely guessing

  Could somebody clarify this for me?

  Jeffery Hodges


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