[Milton-L] Bk 3 and Jeffrey Shoulson's link

Schwartz, Louis lschwart at richmond.edu
Sun Oct 27 14:48:41 EDT 2013


As a report of your initial response to the episode that's all we'll and good, but does it leave room (and has it left room) for finding ways to follow out the implications of what you found or find "imaginatively pleasing" toward a sense that there might be more to the episodes than merely a narrative function, a bit of character development for one major character, and an occasion for thinking about Milton's approach to generic conventions?

I ask this because it has seemed to me and to many others (people who have simply read the passages and been moved to think complexly, and others who have analyzed and commented on them at length in print) that the allegory is far from obvious (in the sense of simple to just get-too much is too strange and strangely affecting for that-too much of what's there calls out for interpretations that the simplest levels allegorical reading cannot make sense of adequately).  Also, it has seemed to many far from "stupid" even just as a bit of narrative-and even if that seems like a perfectly reasonable first response.

I won't rehearse the various readings that have been presented over the years, but I do think that it's worth considering what people have made of the fact that Milton seems to have expended a great deal of imaginative energy on passages that could not have warranted it, if indeed his purposes were as obvious, limited, or stupid as you say they seemed (and maybe still seem?) to you.

As I tried to suggest in an earlier comment, the value of the passages depends on whether or not what we encounter in them (dramatic situations, images, allusions, prosodic devices, and also strange inconsistencies, imaginative extravagances or improprieties, etc.) can make a reader think and feel in complex ways that are related in various ways to what the rest of the text seems to be about.

Do you let your students stop at the obvious or do you point things out to them they might have missed in doing so, and suggest that perhaps this or that detail might be worth some more thought?  Where do you stand now on the allegory?


Louis Schwartz
Professor of English
English Department
University of Richmond
28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA  23173
(804) 289-8315
lschwart at richmond.edu<mailto:lschwart at richmond.edu>

From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of James Rovira
Sent: Sunday, October 27, 2013 1:39 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Bk 3 and Jeffrey Shoulson's link

I would like to contribute by responding to John Savoie's comments below, as I think his emphasis on the reading experience of PL and how it differs from reader to reader is perhaps very close to the basis of our disagreements -- I think that the direction that the conversation has taken provides explanations for our different reading experiences, but they still proceed from our experience of reading the text.

When I first read the Sin and Death episode of Book 2 I took only limited pleasure in it. I did take some pleasure in the episode, and I wouldn't suggest that the episode be cut even as it is for the following reasons:

  *   it serves an important narrative function (how does Satan get out of Hell?)
  *   it furthers the development of Satan's character
  *   it is imaginatively pleasing in its representation of the horrors of and relationships between Satan, Sin, and Death, and
  *   it provides some grounds for interest in its appropriation of the conventions of Greek mythology to explicate Christian belief.
However, the pleasure I took in reading the episode was only limited because

  *   Milton's allegorizing is too obvious. I don't mean to critique the use of allegory at all, just to say that this episode wasn't a particularly interesting example of allegorizing. Harold Skulsky's point a) doesn't really address this critique. No, there's no question that allegorizing is common to Milton's predecessors. That doesn't mean he did a particularly good job of it here.

     *   To develop the previous point (and this was part of my previous discussion of the episode), allegorizing only becomes interesting when it's supported by character development, so that the development of character nuances and expands the scope of the allegory. The best allegorical figures, then, are fully developed characters rather than flat characters that participate in a simple one for one correspondence within an allegorical structure.
     *   I would explain this critique in terms of my own reading experience by saying that Satan in Bk 1 is a very well-developed character, and some of the sub-demons in Bk 1 are well-developed as secondary characters, so when we meet Sin and Death, characters who are not developed as well in Bk 2 as Satan and some of his demons were in Bk 1, the episode falls a bit flat. They may be somewhat better developed later, but that doesn't change my experience of reading Bk 2.

  *   In terms of narrative function, the episode is very stupid. What Milton expects us to believe is that God constructed massive gates for Hell, locked them so that they were impregnable, and then set guards at them to both serve as the way in (Sin and Death are the ways into Hell... and I feel I am being beaten over the head with how obvious the allegory is at this point) and keep occupants from getting out: but then God gave the keys to someone whom He know would release Satan at the first opportunity. Why bother with the gate and keys to begin with, then? Or why not shut and lock up everyone in there and set a loyal angel outside the gates as a guard? Even Biblically, Hell was created for Satan and his angels, not for human beings, but what would be motivating Sin and Death to keep anyone in if they wouldn't keep in Satan? Aren't all occupants of Hell equally in allegiance with Sin and Death against God?
Jim R

On Sat, Oct 26, 2013 at 1:24 PM, <jsavoie at siue.edu<mailto:jsavoie at siue.edu>> wrote:
No "devastating challenge" here, but I would only qualify point (c) below:
pleasure comes first, then understanding, then evaluation, then all three
interweave, again and again, sometimes one, then another, coming to the surface
above the others.  The first time I seriously read the Sin and Death passage of
BK 2, I looked up from the page "with a wild surmise, Silent upon a peak in
Darien," "surpris'd by Sin," marvelously so.  Were the anti-allegorists really
so offended or left cold upon that first reading?  Do you not recall
experiencing a sense of wonder?

John Savoie
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