[Milton-L] Libidinous?

Emily Speller emily.speller at gmail.com
Sun Jul 24 20:12:24 EDT 2011

On Thu, 21 Jul 2011 17:58:55 -0400, John Leonard wrote: “Adam and Eve are
libidinous, and so is Milton, and so are his fit readers.”

Fascinating. I think I agree with Professor Leonard in spirit but object to
the letter.

I’m pondering the potential meanings and connotations of “libidinous,” which
leads me to consider the potential meanings and connotations of “lust.”
“Libidinous” and its early modern variants  (including a new favorite for
me, “libidinosity”) almost always carry unpleasant connotations in the OED.
At least, I wouldn’t care to be called a “most foul libidinist,” and the Ship
of Fools informs us that Sardanapalus “for his lechery and lybydynosyte fell
in too helle.” And then Milton of course (also quoted in OED), has some
strong words for “libidinous and ignorant Poetasters” in the Reason for
Church Gov’t....  But perhaps in PL 5 Milton is recovering (as he often
does) a meaning of the Latin word from which the English word is derived.
Lewis & Short inform me that the Latin libidinosus can mean “passionate,
full of desire, willful, sensual”--and Adam and Eve are all that, or at
least, they are passionate, full of desire, willful, and sensuous, though
passion become another complicated affair. Yet the Latin word can also mean
“licentious, lustful, voluptuous” [one thinks of Sin in PL 2.869], and yes,
“libidinous.” The Latin noun libido--“pleasure, desire, eagerness, longing,
fancy, inclination” seems to fare better, but the participle appears to be
primarily used for inordinate or unlawful lusts:

Excellently lusty youths and maidens aside, I would not consider lust or
libidinosity a mark of rectitude or of innocence, and I would suggest that
Milton did not intend his Adam and Eve to be “libidinous”. I hope I don’t
come off as prudish. I’m all for hailing wedded love, questions that make
angels blush, etc--and who bids abstain but our destroyer? I’m sure you all
recall Coleridge on the distinction Milton generally makes between “sensual”
and  “sensuous,” the latter his coinage. (Perhaps one acknowledging no
difference between “naked” and “nude” might equate these two adjectives as
well, but I submit that Milton generally did intend a distinction between
“sensual” and “sensuous,” if only present in connotation, and that this
difference lies in the will or the disposition of observer or possibly of
person observed.) I think arousal, sexual and otherwise, is an important
part of Milton’s prelapsarian spaces, but we would do well to consider the
occasion, situation, and reason for this arousal before condemning or
condoning it. This is not to say that Milton never intends the reader’s

But to return to the context of the word “libidinous” in PL: I don’t quite
see how “Love unlibidinous” mustn’t include Adam and Eve. The scene includes
three beings, two humans, one angel: “at Table Eve / Minister’d naked” in
the presence of Adam and Raphael (5.444-45). “Sons of God” immediately
refers to angels like Raphael -- but the qualifying phrase “if ever” and
comparison with PL 11.622 and PR 2.178-181 (Belial is one of the
“fleshliest” incubi) complicate our understanding of Milton’s allusion to
Genesis 6. If “those hearts” in which “Love unlibidinous reign’d” are only
angelic, why is the demonstrative pronoun plural, when there are no other
angels around? If “those hearts” belong to the “sons of God,” why is the
verb in the past tense, as if a change to libidinosity is approaching, when
the fall of the rebel angels has already occurred? Milton usually uses the
present tense when referring to qualities of angels, good or bad, that
persist (“...can either sex assume”... “All heart they live, all head...”)
One might object that Milton believed that good angels remain so due to
their obedience, and not because they are upheld by extraordinary grace (PL
5.535-537; book 1, chap. 9 in DDC), and consequently some of the faithful
angels could possibly fall from grace on a later occasion. I think this
fascinating support for Professor Leonard’s reading, as I understand it, but
I am not yet convinced. The narrator’s nostalgic interjection, “O innocence
deserving Paradise!” seems to me to apply especially to unfallen Adam and
Eve, and the phrase after the passage in question-- “nor jealousy / Was
understood, the injur’d Lover’s Hell”--could apply to Adam’s freedom from
suspicion as well as to Raphael’s freedom from unjustly coveting such a wife
as Eve.

Speaking of darts of desire, John Alvis has pointed out in “Philosophy as
Noblest Idolatry in PL” (Interpretation 16.2) that “neither Raphael nor Adam
moves to detain Eve and neither alludes to her departure as the philosophic
conversation resumes." Eve rises with “grace that won who saw to wish her
stay”--but there’s no proof that Adam or Raphael take any notice (PL 8.43).
This is where the suspenseful music begins but the main actors just can’t
hear it. I also read dramatic irony as Eve “shot darts of desire / Into all
eyes to wish her still in sight.” The scene has changed; Eve has already
left. Brendan, I greatly enjoyed your comments on the separation scene, a
significant dramatic event that is not yet entirely clear in my mind. What
does Eve hear? What does Eve not hear? What does Eve overhear? Why does she
say she overheard  Raphael’s parting words about an Enemy that seeks their
ruin (9.274-279), even though Raphael’s parting words are more about an
internal struggle, the subjection of passions to reason? Why, when Raphael
does talk about Satan, does he say to Adam, “warn thy weaker!” though Eve is
already attentive (6.908, 7.50)? I love Milton’s inclusion of the Raphael
discourse, but don’t presume to entirely understand it.

By the way, there’s an intriguing article on Milton and Genesis 6 coming out
in the next issue of Ramify, a multidisciplinary graduate journal published
by the University of Dallas. Chris Schmidt seeks to reconcile the disparate
accounts of the interaction between “sons of God” and “daughters of men” in
Milton’s works: http://ramify.org/issues.php#twoone
If anyone is interested in a copy of the article, let me know.


Emily E. Speller
University of Dallas
(and, within a month, Houston Baptist University)

> Message: 7
> Date: Thu, 21 Jul 2011 17:58:55 -0400
> From: John Leonard <jleonard at uwo.ca>
> Subject: Re: [Milton-L] "erotic" versus
> To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
> Message-ID: <3E4187B31BC140BE85541964CC98C431 at John>
> Content-Type: text/plain; CHARSET=US-ASCII; format=flowed;
>        reply-type=original
> I'm with Richard on this.  Of course YES is the right answer.  One would
> have to be dead not to feel the erotic power of:
>                                                but Eve
>        Undecked, save with herself more lovely fair
>        Than wood-nymph, or the fairest goddess feigned
>        Of three that in Mount Ida naked strove,
>        Stood to entertain her guest . . .
> "Strove" there comes directly from Marlowe's Hero and Leander ("Venus in
> her
> naked glory strove / To please") an unabashedly erotic poem that also
> provided Milton with "naked glory."  A little later we get:
>                                O innocence
>        Deserving Paradise! if ever, then,
>        Then had the sons of God excuse to have been
>        Enamoured at that sight, but in those hearts
>        Love unlibidinous reigned.. . .
> Sister Mary Corcaran in 1944 lifted "Love unlibidinous" from context and
> quoted as if it were a reference to Adam and Eve.  Others have since done
> the same and concluded that Adam and Eve do not make love.  This is a
> crucial misreading.  "Those hearts" are in angelic breasts ("the sons of
> God").  Human hearts throb.  Adam and Eve are libidinous, and so is Milton,
> and so are his fit readers.
> John Leonard
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