[Milton-L] An antidote . . .

Bryson, Michael E michael.bryson at csun.edu
Sat Apr 19 17:37:41 EDT 2014

 "While Adam does not seem to notice any difference in these postlapsarian human relationships, Michael certainly draws the distinction and warns him about deceivingly pleasant appearances of 'wickedness.'"

Michael is an authority on human relationships? Based on what?

I have long thought that Michael is portrayed as a much more severe and all-business version of Raphael, but that other than the differences in tone and perceived "friendliness," they are much the same in terms of the odd, outsider's perspective they bring to the question of what it is to be human. They are full of doctrinal advice, thou shalts and thou shalt nots, and completely lacking in the experience of being human.

And when I look for advice about a difficult *human* problem, I want the voice of experience, not the voice of doctrine.

On what basis does Michael draw a distinction between pre- and postlapsarian relationships? Even in the logic of the poem, Michael does not see past, present, and future all at once. He is presenting a vision to Adam, one that he has no more experience of than does Adam, as he seems to be narrating and interpreting the vision (like a movie) as they watch it together:  "reveale / To Adam what shall come in future dayes, As I shall thee enlighten" (11.113-15). And just as Raphael is of no use whatsoever when Adam is almost pleading for advice on how to handle the feelings he has for Eve (Raphael responds with a chiding lecture because he has absolutely no experiential empathy for Adam's situation), Michael, at least as I read it, is giving the by-the-book interpretation of things for which he has no experiential basis for claiming any insight.

And the Father (who "enlightens" Michael with the interpretation he is to deliver to Adam)? He is the worst of all of them. He sees. He watches. But he has no idea what it is like to be one of his own creations, nor does he seem to care. It is all about him all the time. His pleasure in being obeyed. His indignation at being disobeyed. A loving parent? Give me a break. A father like that in the human world--one who forbids something basic like knowledge, then watches while a much more experienced tempter (whom he has aided and abetted at every stage, to the point of springing from an arrest made by his own security guards) achieves the entirely predictable result, and then blames the *children* and the tempter for the result (but not himself, no...never himself)--would/should have his children taken away from him. The children should love and trust that father enough to obey? Please, give me another break. A responsible father does not put his children in harm's way, having arranged the presence, assisted the journey, and even arranged for the jailbreak of a malevolent "tempter," and then simply watch the proceedings. The story Milton has told in his epic poem is much much much more disturbing than the relatively spare account found in Genesis 3. And the quite-nearly epic attempts to smooth that disturbing quality away, to "justify" not the "ways of God" but the ways of a literary character called "God," simply astound me.

Honestly, sometimes I think that the only character in the poem who even bothers to try to understand Adam and Eve, is Satan. And he does it merely to destroy them--doing the Father's will without even realizing it. And the Son often doesn't seem to care much for human beings either. He seems to regard human beings as, at best (in Paradise Lost) a creature the Father "for [his] glorie...hast made" (3.164), and at worst (in Paradise Regained), as "a herd" (3.49), choosing to describe them with the kind of term a misanthrope might find useful when speaking of the species he hates.

I agree and disagree with Empson. Milton's character "God" is monstrous. But unlike Empson, I do not see Milton trying to make that "God" acceptable. He all but hands "God" a bloody knife and poses him by the bodies of the children he has pronounced the sentence of death upon. Paradise Lost is one of the greatest glories of all the world's literature. But I cannot read it as a paean to angelic wisdom or divine benevolence. Its angels are reduced to their etymology as mere messengers delivering (wonderfully-written and evocative) talking points, and its "God," while one of the most compelling characters in English literature, seems to this reader as far removed as can possibly be from the "loving father" so many wish to find in him.

His messengers, Raphael and Michael, are really no better. Gabriel, Ithuriel, Zephon? Well, at least they tried...but not one of them has the slightest idea of what it is to be human, and I really do not think Milton expected his readers to fail to notice that. Adam and Eve are alone in a crowded and unsympathetic universe--one in which, aside from the animals, every other living thing is trying to manipulate them in some way. But they have no companions except each other, no one to go to for advice that is anything other than prescriptive and removed from actual experience.

Oddly, I'm sure they would find academia a familiar environment--at least as grad students. So many authoritative voices, so many confidently-delivered prescriptions, and all-too-often, so little actual understanding of the dilemma faced by those prescribed to.

Michael Bryson
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Uzakova, Oydin Yashinova [oydin.uzakova at okstate.edu]
Sent: Saturday, April 19, 2014 12:51 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] An antidote . . .

The lines that Louis Schwartz recently referred to stood out to me as well, when I was re-reading this section for another thread.  It is worth noting that Milton does not use the noun "seal" in this sense anywhere else in the poem: he only resorts to it in the sense of the animal "seal(s)."  Other than that, Milton uses the word "seal" as a verb on 2 occasions: when Gabriel threatens to drag Satan in chains back to Hell and "seal" him there to prevent another escape (4.960-64), and when, hurled through chaos by the Son, "Sin, and Death, and yawning grave" will "obstruct the mouth of Hell/For ever, and seal up his ravenous jaws" (10.633-37).  In both of these instances, the seal has negative connotations for those being "sealed" against their will (Satan in Hell and Hell's shut jaws), but promises a positive outcome for human beings (human redemption and immortality).

However, in the case of Adam and Eve, the "seal" has more legal connotations, as it binds them in "mutual guilt" and transgression against their creator, as well as in their postlapsarian fate: "There they their fill of love and love's disport/Took largely, of their mutual guilt the seal,/The solace of their sin" (1042-44).  Post-lapsarian sex has sealed their mutual crime of disobedience as conspirators of sorts, but also promises to provide some comfort to them in their time of trouble and uncertainty about their future. Moreover, sex has become such as "solace" for Adam and Eve in their postlapsarian state that Eve even considers committing suicide as a desirable way out of a potentially sexless marital relationship.  While she entertains the well-meaning idea of their abstaining from sex in order to prevent condemning the whole human race with their original sin, the image of a sexless marriage seems a much more frightening option for her than death in Book 10 (lines 973-79):

But if thou judge it hard and difficult,
Conversing, looking, loving, to abstain
>From love's due rights, nuptial embraces sweet;
And with desire to languish without hope,
Before the present object languishing
With like desire; which would be misery
And torment less than none of what we dread;

When postlapsarian Adam later contemplates one of the visions that Michael presents him with, he becomes relieved and joyful about the tents that revealed the continued existence of amorous delights and nuptial rites among postlapsarian human beings in Book 11 (lines 580-97):

                                            they on the plain
Long had not walked, when from the tents, behold,
A bevy of fair women, richly gay
In gems and wanton dress; to the harp they sung
Soft amorous ditties, and in dance came on:
The men, though grave, eyed them; and let their eyes
Rove without rein; till, in the amorous net
Fast caught, they liked; and each his liking chose;
And now of love they treat, till the evening-star,
Love’s harbinger, appeared; then, all in heat
They light the nuptial torch, and bid invoke
Hymen, then first to marriage rites invoked:
With feast and music all the tents resound.
Such happy interview, and fair event
Of love and youth not lost, songs, garlands, flowers,
And charming symphonies, attached the heart
Of Adam, soon inclined to admit delight,
The bent of nature;

This is another instance of our postlapsarian "roving" with Adam, only to be surprised by sin when Michael quickly sobers up happy Adam with an opposite moral assessment of the "tents": "Those tents thou sawest so pleasant, were the tents/Of wickedness" (11.607-08).  However, what is even more curious to me and applicable to our thread on Milton's ideas about sex and honorable roles of men and women in a relationship is the passage that juxtaposes good respectful women of "domestic honor" and those who are "bred only and completed to the taste/Of lustful appetence" (11.618-19):

For that fair female troop thou sawest, that seemed
Of Goddesses, so blithe, so smooth, so gay,
Yet empty of all good wherein consists
Woman's domestic honor and chief praise;
Bred only and completed to the taste
Of lustful appetence, to sing, to dance,
To dress, and troll the tongue, and roll the eye:

Michael also calls these women "fair atheists" (11.625).  While Adam does not seem to notice any difference in these postlapsarian human relationships, Michael certainly draws the distinction and warns him about deceivingly pleasant appearances of "wickedness."

While Milton was admirably one of the first poets to portray sex as pure and unfallen in Eden, he also took pains to ensure that it was part of Adam and Eve's nuptial marriage rites.


From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu> on behalf of Schwartz, Louis <lschwart at richmond.edu>
Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2014 1:52 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] An antidote . . .

And yes to what James Fleming says.  This seems to me the basic value of the whole poem.  And it’s not just received ideas about sexuality or morality that are interrogated   The whole project of justification itself, I think, depends on the challenge to what’s received about it, which is why the poem even challenges what we seem to receive from it.  This bit of Adamic acuity in cluelessness suggests, very nicely how the poem works, inviting thought even as it seems to cut it off:

Apt the Mind or Fancie is to roave
Uncheckt, and of her roaving is no end….

The poem both checks and unchecks, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence, in that light, that what seems like it’s the end of a conversation here (with its nice, tidy, lesson learned) turns out to be just prelude to a much more complicated and untidy discussion of exactly what has vexed us into further discussion once again.  There is nothing more “at hand” than the details of Adam’s experience of himself, his first apprehensions of life on earth and in Paradise, and finally his loneliness, desires, and erotic experience of Eve, which is what he goes on and on about over the next several hundred lines, offering us all sorts of complicating contexts and pretexts for what happens the next day (not to mention what has already happened and what we’ve already heard Eve say about some of the same things from her perspective—also the narrator’s earlier account of the love the two of them made, ah, the night before).

In the interest of further roving along these lines over into Book 9, I’d like to repeat something I brought up the last time Richard Strier invited us to consider the issue.  I don’t agree with him entirely that there’s no difference between the sex that Adam and Eve have before and after the fall, but in a crucial sense the fact that the two acts (or sets of acts) are more the same than we might conventionally imagine them or expect them to be does make a difference.  Milton’s poising of the two scenes against one another is a centrally powerful example of the challenging power of the poem.

For me the key and most poetically brilliant touch—and it happens to come right before we’re told that the force of the “fallacious Fruit” with its “exhilerating vapor bland” is “exhal’d” out of the bodies of Adam and Eve—is the way that Milton has the narrator call Adam’s and Eve’s taking their “fill of Love and Loves disport” both the “seal” of “thir mutual guilt” and “The solace of thir sin [italics mine].”  “Seal” and “solace.”  A pact, a union, a broken union, a consolation, isolation, impression; “seis’d” and taken largely, nothing loath.  Sole alas, unsavory of itself, but also soul, associate soul, one heart one flesh one soul.  It’s a striking bit of overdetermination (it starts with the more conventional “seal” of guilt and then branches off unchecked from the addition of “solace”—and the further roving is supported by a series of puns and echoes).

So where does that leave us?  Roving, I hope:  back to the bower, and then out of it to the bank and back again, and again.  As long as the heart “be still as loving/ And the moon be still as bright.”  Until the heart is stilled and we go no more, I suppose.

I’m looking forward to making time soon to read John Savoie’s essay, which sounds really interesting to me.


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 JD Fleming
Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:08 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] An antidote . . .

Yes. The interest of this whole issue, it seems to me, is the intensity of the challenge that PL presents to received ideas about sexuality and morality--not the way in which it reproduces or conserves them. JD Fleming

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