[Milton-L] the seal / The solace

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Sun Apr 20 10:27:50 EDT 2014

It must be a guy thing, John. I don't see that undertone, either.  Especially with as skilled and precise a linguist as John Milton--most of the time, a cigar is just a cigar, and when it's a phallic symbol, he's not shy about letting you know it.

Best to all,

Carol Barton

From: John K Leonard 
Sent: Saturday, April 19, 2014 6:12 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List 
Subject: [Milton-L] the seal / The solace

On 04/19/14, "Richard A. Strier" <rastrier at uchicago.edu> wrote: 

        I don't believe there is a sexual pun on "seal" any more than on "fallacious."  I think the hunt for such puns is, to use a word that Milton does pun on, unfruitful.  In general, I think the search for sexual meanings in Renaissance poetry has been overdone (especially in Donne, 



Does your scepticism  extend to Donne's 'seal' puns? If they are a fanciful figment, my case for a pun in book nine of PL is divided from its best prop, but the Donne instances sound persuasive to me. Two come immediately to mind. Elegy 19 ("To his Mistress Going to Bed"):

"To enter in these bonds is to be free, / There where my hand is set, my seal shall be"

 and "The Relic":

                  Coming and going, we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals;
                  Our hands ne'er touched the seals
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free. (27-30)

True, these prove nothing about Milton's lines, but the Miltonic context--

There they their fill of love and love's disport
Took largely, of their mutual guilt the seal,
The solace of their sin, till dewy sleep
Oppressed them (9.1042-5)--

is clearly erotic, not just legal (though I agree the legal sense is primary), and "Oppressed" becomes doubly deflating if we here an ironic contrast with the other kind of "pressing" that has just happened with the other kind of seal. In part, the pathos comes from the alliteration ("the seal, / The solace . . . sin . . . sleep / Oppressed"). Editors (myself included) have long noted that "solace" has its own ominous erotic echo, from Proverbs 7.18, where a woman in the 'attire of a harlot' accosts a youth: 'Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning, let us solace ourselves with loves'. This is not so very far from Donne, it seems to me, though Adam's hands (and other parts) do touch the seals, and do find a temporary solace that is both like and unlike the 'solace' Adam had requested when he asked God to make a companion:

By conversation with his like to help
Or solace his defects. (8.418-19)

It is 'like' because 'conversation', even in book eight, reaches out for the sexual sense (which Milton would remember all too vividly from Colasterion), and it is 'unlike' because postlapsarian sex has become a 'solace of their sin', not a making whole. Perhaps I am guilty of over-reading, but I stand by my opinion that the 'seal' pun is a much better candidate (at least it's a much better pun) than fallacious/fellatious. Adam and Eve have, after all, just had sex, so it is not as if Louis and I are trying to bring sex into an irrelevant context.

John Leonard 


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