An industrious youth, studious and earnestly Protestant, Milton wanted to write a great national epic, with Spencer as his predecessor. From the late 1620s through the 1630’s, he wrote pastoral and other poetry, such as Arcades and Comus (1634). Milton was a bourgeois, and his father was a successful scrivener. Milton went to Cambridge , made a grand tour of Europe in 1638-39, and three years later the Civil War broke out, an event that changed Milton ’s life profoundly. Archbishop William Laud had driven him away from the Church of England, and now Milton wrote in favor of the Puritan cause, against Bishops, in favor of divorce, and for a free press (1644, Areopagitica.)
His personal life was a sad one; his young wife Mary Powell left him soon after the marriage, only to return and die in childbirth 1652. That is the same year in which Milton went blind. He married Catherine Woodcock in 1656, but she died in 1658. he married the third time to Elizabeth Minshull in 1663, and Elizabeth outlived Milton . After the Restoration in 1660, Milton experienced some financial hardship, but by 1667, he nonetheless published Paradise Lost in 10 books (the 12-book version came out in 1674). In 1671, he published Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.Paradise Lost is a work written in sadness and disillusionment. The author’s millenarian hopes had been crushed—there was to be no immediate Rule of the Saints, and his own time no longer seemed to be ushering in Christ’s return at the Last Judgment. Ordinary people preferred theaters, bowling and the semi-Catholic and elegantly dissolute Charles the second, along with his “Protestant whores.” This would be egg on any Puritan’s face, but Milton had kept a high profile. So how was he to deal with the fall of the Puritan cause and the return of the Stuart Kings? It became necessary to tie historical developments into the persistent consequences of the Fall. England had, after all, fallen away from what had seemed to be history-making progress in religion, politics, and civil society.
The Structure of Paradise Lost:
1-2 :: 11-12. Permanent Fall of Satan versus the Fortunate Fall of Adam and Eve. 1-2 are a parody of classical epic’s militarism—set speeches, hosts, power-grabbing leaders. Satan is cast as Agamemnon and as an Asiatic despot. In 11, Michael will give Adam a panoramic view of the future, so that in his exile he will retain hope for his offspring. Satan doesn’t understand “the vision thing,” and he has a vested interest in not understanding God’s linear time.
3-4 :: 9-10. Adam and Eve converse, and we find out about the relationship between heaven and earth, which by 9-10 will have to be renewed. Satan makes his adventurous trip to earth through Chaos, and tempts Eve. God sets forth prophecies.
5-6 :: 7-8. Narration of events in Heaven, explanation of Adam and Eve’s place in the created order. WAR IN HEAVEN and its consequences = 5-8 as a block. Christ is a Warrior, God’s terrible aspect, in 5-6, and he is the Creative Word in 7-8. God is inscrutable, but Christ the intercessor makes him manifest, expressing the inexpressible.
Introduction to Books 1-2:
Problem: we have two sets of givens—our experience of an evil world, and the idea that at the creation everything was perfect. How did the change occur? Milton will draw on a grand multi-part myth cycle to explain things:
1. Creation and 2. The Fall. Milton will link these first two logically; Genesis provides a brief text without full justification, or at least without much explanation.
3. Redemption. Christ offers to atone for humankind’s original sin, re-forging a connection or path between the human and the divine. Milton ’s poetical problem is how to deal with the extremely long Old Testament history that must go by—why does it take so long for Christ to return? Michael’s Book 11 panorama justifies this length in terms of poetic structure.
4. Anno Domini. This is the time from the Annunciation to the Apocalypse. But when will the latter occur? Milton compresses the waiting time.
Some Things to Watch For:
Eyes, Ears, Understandings:
Good Angels such as Raphael, Abdiel, and Michael
Adam and Eve Unfallen
Adam and Eve Fallen
The Narrator, aided by Urania/Holy Spirit
Fallen Us, Fit Audience Though Few
Significant Texts and Structures:
The Bible, Old Testament and New Testament
Classical Epic and All Other Genres
Christian Epic and Literature (Tasso, Ariosto, Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare)
The Great Chain of Being (Raphael’s “Bright Consummate Flow’r”)
Theology and Philosophy
Science—Bacon, Galileo, etc.
Current Events and Opinions—English Civil War, Rule of Saints, Stuart Restoration
Narrator’s personal situation (closely parallels that of isolated, endangered Milton)
Risks to Keep in Mind:
Narrator : may aspire without proper inspiration and authority: Satanic self-sufficiency, desire to rewrite and even replace Biblical narrative as well as all other literature (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, etc.). Is the narrator’s heart continually “upright and pure”?
Us: siding with Satan the Rebel with a False Cause; mere literary appreciation of text’s complexity and beauties as “dead letter”—i.e. failing to interpret PL spiritually; not fitting ourselves into the story or applying stern lessons to ourselves. We may fail to be, in Stanley Fish’s phrase, “surprised [continually] by sin”—an effect that many of Milton ’s dramatic descriptions and narrations are clearly meant to create. In this regard, the work as a whole resembles a strong, varied sermon—it must be appliedto members of the congregation.
Some Modes of Showing and Telling:
Example: Christ, Abdiel, Raphael and Muse as poets describing heavenly things, etc.
Demonstration: The War in Heaven—demonstrates to rebel angels God’s omnipotence and serves as vehicle for Christ’s dramatic elevation.
Celebration: Prayer and Song, as in Eden Adam and Eve chant orisons unpremeditated.
Concrete Description (allegory included): Narrator and Raphael able to do this, bearing in mind the limits of speech as a conveyance for heavenly things.
Vagueness: Strategic vagueness to remind us how to interpret the poem’s concrete descriptions.
Oratory: Public set-piece speeches by God, Christ, Satan, Adam, others. Satan is the first “politician” (in the bad sense, not the good Aristotelian one wherein politics helps us pursue the good life).
Narration: recountings “situate” prior and higher things and events temporally and spatially, in terms that the fallen eye and understanding can encompass. This is due not to God’s need, but ours, and even to that of unfallen Adam and Eve. Main justifications for history as unfolding occur in Books 7 and 11: the Annunciation of Christ, Adam’s Panoramic Vision of Human History as Granted by Michael--the Fortunate Rise of Christ and Fortunate Fall of humankind. Exclusion and differentiation lead to still greater unity and coherence.
Places to arrange: Heaven, Hell, Chaos, Unfallen Earth, Fallen Earth, Narrator’s Study
Book-by-Book Notes on Milton’s Paradise Lost
General Comment: Regarding the claims of Milton’s epic to retell parts of the Bible, we might refer to “the doctrine of things indifferent,” which suggests that if something isn’t discussed in the Bible, people are free to invent, opinionize, and so forth.Milton would probably agree that the basic articles of belief and conduct necessary to make it to heaven aren’t particularly difficult to comprehend, so authors are free to extrapolate from or elaborate on the Scriptures.The text’s truth-status is certainly something Milton must defend in Paradise Lost since he can’t rely sincerely on an argument like that of Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote in his “Defense of Poesy” that a poet shouldn’t be accused of falsehood since “he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for . . . to lie, is to affirm that to be true, which is false.”Milton is, after all, extrapolating from the Scriptures, and it’s obvious that he considers his text “inspired” by a Christian Muse.But there is a long tradition of defending the use of metaphor and figurative language in the Bible (carried on by no less than Augustine, Aquinas, among others) as a necessary form of accommodation, and Milton would probably say that his own stories based on Biblical events are just such a form of accommodation to help fallen human beings understand their predicament.
1-26.In his initial invocation, the narrator will take his readers all the way back to the beginning of things, back to “man’s first disobedience.”Milton’s text shows a strong interest in getting back to the origin or source of things, events, tendencies, words, stories, and just about everything else he can find time and scope to investigate.The narrator calls his muse Urania, but indirectly invokes the Christian God, or “the Holy Spirit” as a creative, illuminating power.At 15-16, the narrator claims that there will be “no middle flight” in this book—nearly every major human thought-system and historical cycle is to be subsumed into Paradise Lost, there to be given its place within the Christian order and narrative.Homer, Virgil, and all other great literary artists of pagan times may be considered honorable predecessors whose work to some extent prefigures Milton’s, but it’s clear that we are to understand them as having written about what Milton, in a famous line from Book 1, calls “devils to adore for deities.”The narrator prays at line 18 for the “upright heart and pure” that should prove a fit vessel for the task to be accomplished.Blindness—and of course Milton had gone blind by the time he began to compose Paradise Lost—is an early theme in the epic, one that will recur more than once in the books ahead.The compensation for physical blindness, the narrator implies, is inward illumination about spiritual matters.
36.The first sin, according to the narrator, was pride.This sin involved Satan’s desire to upset the fixed, just hierarchy of God, an ethereal and yet real order that Satan (ever the bad interpreter) mistakes again and again for something merely material.
54-75.At this point, we are treated to the first “elegiac moment”; Satan suffers from “the thought / Both of lost happiness and lasting pain.”There will be many more such moment, some perhaps less illegitimate than others, but none fully deserving of pity.Milton seems to have learned much from Shakespeare’s handling of his tragic heroes, and while Satan may not have a “Fool” of the same kind that King Lear has by his side throughout most of his sufferings, he carries his own “inner Fool” with him at all times.
The line “no light but rather darkness visible” (60) is deliciously absurd, but that’s because the narrator needs to render something of the strangeness and absurdity of Hell itself.This is perhaps our first look at Milton’s important strategy of accommodating heavenly things to more understandable earthly ones.Hell, as Milton’s narrator describes it, is a crazy composite “place”; it burns with a bizarrely negative light, and although it is a prison (a place of stagnation), there’s literally “no rest for the wicked.”
80-94.The elegiac quality of Satan’s opening words here is hard to miss; in essence, he tells the first rhetorical lie to Beëlzebub, whose aid he courts with chivalric sentiment.
95-124.Satan’s rhetoric is absurd here, as it will prove to be throughout Paradise Lost.Milton’s Devil is always equating himself with God and making bogus political claims.While he obviously covets the role of absolute dictator over the fallen legions, he sets himself forth as an angel whose peers “democratically” chose him as their leader.Christ’s declared advancement is seen as mere favoritism on the Father’s part, and as one of my UC Irvine professors used to say, Satan suffers from a serious case of “injured merit.”In a word, he feels slighted and can’t see why the Son has any more right than he, Satan, has to sit at the right hand of God the Father.The battle is described as having taken place on a literal plane, a “field,” and the outcome is characterized as dubious.It makes no sense to ask defiantly, “What though the field be lost?” (105) when one’s defeat is total and extends infinitely beyond any physical, containable dimensions.God’s power, in Milton’s order of things, is absolute and infinite; it cannot be countered with anything but laughable results.And there is a great deal of this sort of humor in Paradise Lost.Well, Satan needs to enlist sham reasoning in the service of his perpetual illusions and confusions.He seems eternally astonished at the plain truth of God’s justice and order, and he chooses instead to ally himself with chaos and cover-up.Following Satan’s speech, Beëlzebub evidently doubts the force of what Satan has said—what if, he asks, the “field” is more than just one battle, and what if things really can keep getting worse and worse?
156-91.In reply to Beëlzebub, Satan is ready with some more speedy words; he sets the devils’ tasks as those of un-creation, negation, inversion, chaos-making, and in general the frustration of Providence (God’s plan).
195-210.Here is the first of Milton’s excellent “observer” similes: this one describes the bulk of Satan as similar to that of the Biblical Leviathan or a great whale that a Norwegian captain might stumble upon in the dark of night, and mistake for an island.The purpose of similes in Milton is generally fourfold: it may refer us back to a former state of things; offer an historical parallel (Red Sea, Egyptian chivalry, Biblical times, etc.); bring other epics into the mix (Homer refers to leaves and bees metaphorically; and so does Milton); or refer to Eden and the wilderness thereof.In the present simile, we see the strangeness of what the narrator is trying to describe to us—its proportions and dimensions are too huge for our senses to take in, which may produce a disorienting effect.The simile itself doesn’t try to reduce Satan to a level easily taken in; rather, it reproduces the “original” sense of disorientation implied.
242-70.Satan offers another elegiac perspective on his situation, taking his farewell in thought of the “happy fields” he had formerly known.Some of his most memorable lines occur in this little speech: “The mind is its own place,” he insists at line 254, and then goes on to sum up his position on the angelic fall: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (263).This is why British romantics such as Byron and Shelley praise Milton’s Devil—they see him as the ultimate rebel with a cause: opposing God’s allegedly tyrannical rule over adoring slaves.Shelley’s “Essay on the Devil and Devils” takes this view about as far as it can go since he proclaims that Satan is “morally superior” to the God against whom he rebelled.This is what he writes in the essay: “Nothing can exceed the grandeur and the energy of the Devil as expressed in Paradise Lost. . . . Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent, in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy—not from any mistaken notion of bringing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity but with the open and alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.”(Shelley’s Prose. Ed. David Lee Clark. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988. 267.)
But the same romantics probably also understood that Milton would scarcely ratify their interpretation: Satan’s claims are about as dubious as claims can be: the mind is not independent in the way Satan claims, as Milton would surely say, and neither is reigning over a territory of utter desolation better than praising the Almighty in Paradise.
283-94.Although Milton uses the ancient Ptolemaic system of astronomy, he is aware of the discoveries of Galileo (1564-1642), whose name is associated with his predecessor Copernicus (1473-1543), whose “heliocentric” theory helped initiate the modern Scientific Revolution.The narrator likens Satan’s shield to the moon as viewed through Galileo’s telescope.
315-30.Milton borrows here and elsewhere from classical epic’s standard portrayal of the haranguing captain inciting his men to courageous exploits with a mixture of insults and inspirational language: “Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n” (330).
365-521.At the command of their leader, the rebel angels rise from the burning lake and begin to wander about the realm of Hell, giving the narrator an opportunity to trace the lineage of the world’s “devils to adore for deities” (373).The goal in cataloguing these pagan gods is partly to get to the source of mythological and historical confusion.Hell accounts for a great deal of the wrong kind of human diversity in that its bad angels spread out over the Middle East, Egypt, Greece, Britain, and nearly everywhere else on the globe.(By “bad diversity,” I mean the kind that stems from fiendishly clever variations on wicked and selfish acts, not the kind that stems from God’s generous decree in Genesis that humans and all creatures should “be fruitful and multiply.”)Moreover, the catalogs so full of names and places underscore the deceptiveness of fallen language, which multiplies confusion along with its many terms for things.
587-621.Satan surveys his great host in a moment of epic grandeur.Again we see his divided psyche, in which what may be genuine pity for the fallen coexists with cruel determination to forge a rival empire dedicated to the frustration of God’s cosmic order.Satan towers above the other rebel angels, and we are told that some of his old beauty still survives, in an “excess / Of glory obscured” (593-94).Milton must, of course, play up the epic dimensions and persona of Satan, lest his epic become much less interesting—Satan must, after all, be greater than an earthly Achilles or Aeneas, mustn’t he?But at the same time, the narrator will keep twinning his sublime descriptions of Satan with passages casting the hellish hero as a posturer and deployer of devious rhetoric and “smoke-and-mirrors” visual spectacles.
622-62.Satan takes stock of the situation for his host, blaming God for the catastrophe they’ve suffered because he advanced Christ as the Crown Prince and then put down the envious rebels with strength they never knew he had.The charge, then, is that God deviously “concealed” the true dimensions of his power, and in effect tempted the angels to defy him—in Satan’s view (if, of course, we are to suppose that he really believes what he says), God set them up for a fall.Satan is issuing what we might call a terrorist’s manifesto; he waffles somewhat on the question of confronting God again directly on the so-called “field of battle,” and insists that in any case the bad angels can wage asymmetrical warfare against this sublimely powerful foe.However, as always in Milton’s scheme of things, Satan doesn’t see that God’s power is not merely physical; it is moral and spiritual, and therefore cannot truly be opposed.
670-751.In this segment, the narrator belittled human pretensions to grandiosity and opulence: the devils set to work on their infernal palace, mining the necessary metals and other materials as they go, with a speed that would astonish the most proficient human engineers and architects.This whole passage is a reminder that much human industry amounts not so much to intelligence as to fiendish cleverness stemming from a desire to rival God or simply achieve an illegitimate independence from him.What the devils do in Hell, we might say, is the archetype of the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis.
775-98.In the concluding segment of Book One, the narrator’s multiple similes describe the devils as they prepare for their “great consult[ation].”The narrator allows a pretense of grandeur, orderliness, and democratic assent into his description, only to take it all back in a spirit of mockery at their shape-shifting grotesqueness and, ultimately, inessentiality.We are told that the devils shrunk themselves down to “smallest forms” (789), but we hear subsequently that “far within / And in their own dimensions like themselves” (792-93) some of the highest angels (if I read Milton correctly here) take their seats and begin the meeting.But what exactly are these true dimensions?The point we are to derive, it seems, is the Augustinian one that says evil, correctly understood, simply does not exist; it lacks ontological stability because authentic beings are grounded (and freely recognize that they are grounded) in God.
30-42.Satan puts forth a false principle of egalitarianism, claiming that no one in Hell will claim “precédence.”But he is exactly the sort of despot Milton himself had long been on record as despising.
43-105.Moloch is the Devils’ Achilles-like fighter; he declares for open warfare, not guile.As far as he is concerned, nothing could be worse than the present situation.At line 65, he sounds like the first spokesman for the “military-industrial complex.”Milton chastises ancient epic’s glorification of war for war’s sake and uncontrolled wrath, the “oulomenos mēnin” of Achilles.This kind of anger differs from God’s righteous wrath in the Hebrew Scriptures.
106-228.Next Belial offers his opinion.Possessed of more savvy than Moloch, he realizes that things actually could get worse and that God’s powers are not of the almost purely material kind that some of the angels attribute to Him.If God is omniscient as well as omnipotent, it also makes no sense to suppose, says Belial, that the bad angels will be able to trick him or hide anything from him.Belial therefore counsels that the fallen host play a waiting game; perhaps God will remit some of their punishment if they stay out of his sight for a long time.Still, this advice is no better than a variation on Satan’s mistake: how can one be “out of sight, out of mind” when the perceiver is God?
229-83.Mammon then takes his turn, and he offers a Nimrod-like pan: the devils should stay in Hell and concentrate on building up their empire.He believes that they can achieve a level of splendor rivaling God’s Heaven and even that in due time, they will become accommodated to the fiery element of their new abode.
299-416.Beëlzebub now steps in and plays “spin doctor,” extrapolating from Satan’s earlier thought that it might serve best to seek out earth and ruin whatever “next big thing” God has planned for the cosmos.The whole speech is carefully staged, and leads to a portentous request for a volunteer: who will be so bold and skilful as to make his way out of Hell and fulfill the task specified?
430-85.Satan sets himself forward as the princely devil for the job.His bold exploit will lead the bad angels on to their new dream of building and maintaining a rival empire against God, by any means necessary.Satan’s speedy response has effectively “prevented all reply” (467), and so with Beëlzebub’s help he is able to cement his position as Hell’s great dictator and heroic champion, receiving the clamorous acclaim he seeks upon the conclusion of his speech.
506-628.The “Stygian council” breaks up now that the necessary decision has been made, and the rebel angels split up into separate groups according to their various inclinations.They participate in games and practice arts—Olympian-style contests at 530, recitation of heroic epic at 546ff, and philosophical and theological debate at 557-65.Hell has its explorers, too, as we find at 570, and they begin to trace the stunning geography of the “dismal world” into which their sin has thrown them.Lines 614-28 offer a remarkable description of this place, with its “Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death, / A universe of Death,” all seen, we must presume, in the eerie “darkness visible” mentioned back in Book 1.
629-889.This segment presents the famous meeting between Satan and his “daughter” Sin, along with their offspring, Death.Sin is described with Spenserian visual dimensions at line 645 and following, and at first Satan fails to recognize either his old lover or his son Death, when the latter appears and threatens to sting his father.As usual, Satan is blind to the consequences of his actions, calling Death “execrable shape” at line 681.At 727, Sin shows a strange affection for Satan, and dissuades him from harming Death, as he seems set on doing, and she similarly warns her son not to harm his father.This is truly the first “dysfunctional family,” fraught with violent regard and incestuous relations.When Satan still cannot recognize Sin, she recounts for him the story of her birth, which Milton has evidently borrowed from the Greek myth of Athena springing fully grown from the head of Zeus.Sin sprang from Satan’s head just at the point when he was about to declare his bold plan in council to rebel against God’s tyrannical rule.The lady now reveals a Satan-like sense of “injured merit,” believing that she is now deprived of that favor which her father and lover had formerly granted her.At 774, in what seems to be a parody of Saint Peter’s reception at the hands of Christ of the Key to Heaven, Sin says that after the rebel host fell, she was given the key to Hell’s portal, “with charge to keep / These gates for ever shut” (775-76).At 792, Sin recounts how she was raped by her son Death, and the union produced myriads of “yelling monsters” that surround her always and return at will to the womb, there to gnaw her innards.This is Milton’s grotesquely Spenserian figure for the incestuous relationship between sin and death.By line 815, Satan has come to realize that this hideous pair are his natural allies, fitting instruments of the revenge he seeks against God.He will set them free as if they were two attack dogs, and Sin obligingly obeys her father.Her recognition of him and her support for his plan are ironic, considering the disloyalty Satan has shown for God.
918-67.The Gates of Hell now opened (not to be shut again until the Last Judgment), Satan beholds the great space he must cross for a time, and then embarks on his Odyssean voyage through Chaos.The narrator describes this passage in somewhat comic terms: we see Satan falling, tumbling, and stumbling through the empty space, only advancing, the narrator reminds us, at the sufferance of God.He is ill at ease and off balance throughout his “heroic” voyage, dependent on the will of the very Power he means to oppose.
968-1010.Satan manages to convince Chaos and Night, and the dread Powers surrounding their throne, that he means them only good.Theirs, he promises, will be the “advantage,” while he seeks only “revenge” (987).They agree without much ado, and Satan is able to make his way forwards.
1024-55.Sin and Death follow their father, building after his tracks the great bridge that will speed the passage of the bad angels back and forth from hell to earth, there to tempt mankind.Book 2’s final passage offers a panoramic vision of the “empyreal Heav’n” and the beautiful new “pendent world” (1052) next to its moon.Satan’s mind, however, is dark with revenge—he has not come merely to behold this magnificent sight; he has come, so he thinks, to destroy it utterly if he can, or at the very least to spoil it for the better part of its inhabitants.
1-55.The invocation at the beginning of the third book, with its Petrarchan extremes and genuine pathos, is perhaps the most intimate and moving of any in Paradise Lost.The narrator will soon describe the consequences of the fall, but at this point the issue for him is the consequences of that fall for him personally.He is blind, and what compensation can there be for so terrible a deprivation?He feels a duty to cultivate the spiritual insight that can alone make up for such loss, and asks for help from “holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born.”God obliges him, and the narrative moves on.The narrator links himself with ancient seers who have shaped history, and brings the story down to the level of a brief, individual human situation (his own) in the present time.Milton had implored God at the beginning of the first book, “what is dark in me illumine,” and here in the third book we are reminded of the difficulty in accommodating heavenly things to earthly understandings and reassured of the narrator’s confidence in his ability to do so: “So much the rather thou celestial Light / Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers / Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence / Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight” (51-55).We are moving from darkness and chaos to the realms of light, and the narrator prays to be freed for a time from Satan’s and his own painful way of knowing things as a fallen man.Milton would have been quite aware of his predecessor Dante’s wonderful achievement in characterizing heaven as a place of pure energy and light in the Paradiso, and Paradise Lost must venture into the same region.
79-134.God begins to speak to his Son.Some have said that he sounds almost petulant at times, but the logic is Milton’s own: “reason is but choosing,” as the author had written in “Areopagitica.”God says of mankind, “whose fault? / Whose but his own?Ingrate, he had of me / All he could have; I made him just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (96-99).As for the old argument about God’s omniscience and omnipotence making him responsible for the evil others do, God says, “if I foreknew, / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, / Which had no influence on their fault” (117-18).The idea is that God did not compel either the rebel angels to disobey or Eve and Adam to sin; he simply knew that they were going to make the choices they in fact subsequently made.Not everyone finds this argument convincing, but it’s the one Milton himself evidently means to make.At line 129, we see that God is by no means a full-on predestinarian: to humankind he offers grace, while Satan he views as a lost cause: “The first sort by their own suggestion fell, / Self-tempted, self-depraved: man falls deceived / By the other first: man therefore shall find grace . . .” (129-31).
144-66.The Son replies to the Father, showing concern for the latter’s reputation: wouldn’t allowing mankind to be utterly lost amount to a victory for the rebel angels?Wouldn’t it be a profoundly decreative act, whereas God is all about creative generosity?The Son’s reverential tone marks a change from the tone of the heroic epic we heard in the first two books to a more reverential tone; as the editors point out, what the Son says sounds a lot like Abraham’s pleadings with God not to destroy the people of Sodom.
167-216.God explains to the Son and the angels that redemption is indeed possible and part of the plan.At line 180, we are told that man will be “By me upheld, that he may know how frail / His fall’n condition is, and to me owe / All his deliv’rance, and to none but me” (180-82).This line may seem to have a bit of the Hebrew Scriptures’ “jealous god” in it—it’s the kind of statement against which Shelley takes radical aim in his prose.
217-73.God explains that for the redemptive potential to come into its own, a sacrifice will be necessary: “death for death” (212).Even the good angels want no part of this demand, and the Son alone shows the “active virtue” Milton had praised highly in “Areopagitica”: “Behold me then, me for him, life for life / I offer, on me let thine anger fall; / Account me man . . .” (236-38).We may remember the infernal parallel to this scene, where Satan alone rises to the challenge of finding a way out of hell.Well, does the Son seem to be less than equal with God the Father here?Or is Milton just accommodating the dialog to our limited understanding?He has an obvious dramatic problem here: how do you represent a dialog between perfect beings, two members of the Trinity?Well, you have to make them sound like entirely separate beings.
317-43.God prophecies (infallibly, of course) about End Things or eschatological matters: Christ will return a second time and judge the living and the dead, while the world “shall burn, and from her ashes spring / New Heav’n and earth, wherein the just shall dwell . . .” (334-35).In the end, “God shall be all in all” (341) and the Son will be able to put away his scepter.The assembled hosts are told that they must “Adore the Son, and honor him as me” (343).Well, we might ask, why doesn’t this all happen sooner?Why must there be such a long detour?In terms of Paradise Lost as a narrative, the eschatological scheme implies a linear progression towards the last things, but that isn’t a scheme the epic itself can follow.The difference or detour on the way “there” from “here” Milton treats as the effect of sin and as part of God’s providential design.
344-417.The hosts comply, and sing hymns first to the Father and then to the Son, his “Divine Similitude” (384).Radiant imagery prevails, with the Father called a “Fountain of light, thyself invisible / Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sitt’st / Throned inaccessible . . .” (375-77).The narrator announces a shift in his subject matter at the end of this segment: “Hail Son of God, Saviour of men, thy name / Shall be the copious matter of my song / Henceforth . . .” (412-14).
418-587.The narrator performs a rather cinematic “cut” to Satan with the word “Meanwhile.”The Arch-Fiend surveys the region later to become known as the Paradise of Fools.But the narrator undermines Satan’s grand perspective of “Jacob’s ladder” to the heavens (510) by reminding us of various ridiculous delusions, sins, and pridefulness.We hear of the friars with their false doctrines about how to get to heaven, false rituals, and so forth: “Then might ye see / Cowls, hoods and habits with their wearers tossed / And fluttered into rags; then relics, beads, / Indulgences, dispenses, pardons, bulls, / The sport of winds . . .” (489-93).Satan himself is on a quest to hold divided empire: in essence, he is a Manichean who believes in his own substantiveness in opposition to God.But in due time “The stairs were then let down” (523) and a way into Paradise is thereby opened for Satan, whereupon we shift with a perhaps conquistador-themed observer simile to the magnificent sight that unfolds before the Fiend, sparking his “wonder” and “envy” alike—at least for a moment, whereupon he makes his landing on the sun.And who should he espy there but a radiant angel that turns out to be Uriel.
588-742.When he sees Uriel, Satan knows he must begin his career as an Ovidian shape-shifter, so he presents himself as an innocent cherub on vacation from heaven, just a fine young angel who burns with the desire to see and know more about the universe God has made.And the deception works: Satan turns Uriel’s kindness into weakness for, as Milton says, “neither man nor angel can discern / Hypocrisy” (682-83).Satan is at least free to make his way down to earth, and lands on Mount Niphates in Assyria.
1-113.Milton does a fine job at the beginning of this book with regard to preventing our perspective from unifying with Satan’s or our sympathies from his way.That’s the risk an author always runs when dealing with a powerful villain whose understanding of and control over the situation seems to be greater than those of anyone else around.Readers find it hard to side with dupes, to put the matter bluntly.But the narrator makes sure to characterize Satan as a stage villain—one who is lucid enough to understand the nature of his error and so stubborn that he would rather persist in his villainy than repent.Why did Satan rebel?His own explanation is, “Ah wherefore! he deserved no such return / From me, whom he created what I was / In that bright eminence” (42-44).Satan knows this intellectually, but evidently he cannot accept it spiritually or emotionally: “Be then his love accursed, since love or hate, / To me alike, it deals eternal woe” (69-70).His situation is hopeless by his own admission: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (75).Even if restored to his former place, he would rebel again, and humanity’s creation only rubs salt into his wounds.This being so, he decides upon a strategy of depraved inversion: “Evil be thou my good; by thee at least / Divided empire with Heav’n’s King I hold / By thee . . .” (110-12).
131-287.Taking the form of a ravenous cormorant, Satan alights on the Tree of Life (194-96) next to the Tree of Knowledge, and surveys “A happy rural seat of various view” (247).
288-355.“Two of far noble shape erect and tall . . . .”In this portrait of the first couple, that they are differently ranked is not in question: the narrator says that they are “Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed” (296).They are different, but there’s reciprocity between them: mutuality and “meet conversation” reign.Adam is somewhat like Puritan husband—he is minister, teacher, and guardian to his mate.The Garden of Eden isn’t a regimented place, and neither is the relationship rigid.Instead, there’s a gentle symmetry or complementarity between Adam and Eve.
356-410.Satan views this “gentle pair” (366), and is at first stunned by their innocence and beauty.As always, Satan is deeply divided and in an unhappy dialog with himself.We see that his private compassion is divided from his sense of duty as leader of the bad angels: “public reason just, / Honor and empire with revenge enlarged / By conquering this new world, compels me now / To do what else though damned I should abhor” (389-92).The narrator’s denunciation of this ploy is right on the mark—he calls this alleged “necessity” nothing but “the tyrant’s plea” (394).Satan has an empire to administer, and constituents to satisfy and keep in line, and as far as he is concerned, nothing must be allowed to stand in his way.
411-39.Adam’s conversation with Eve shows that for him, material objects hint at the creation’s source; his “necessity” is only this generous supposition: “needs must the Power / that made us, and for us this ample world / Be infinitely good . . .” (412-14).Adam and Eve are not yet subject to the same sad way of learning that Satan is—he learns only by making mistakes and paying the price for them, and is then continually surprised at what should be obvious to him about his situation and state of error.The upshot of Adam’s lecture to Eve is something like the first pastoral: “let us ever praise him, and extol / His bounty, following our delightful task / To prune these growing plants, and tend these flow’rs, / Which were it toilsome, yet with thee were sweet” (436-39).Adam shows us his unfallen Puritan work ethic: he and Eve are to complete God’s labor of creation.
440-91.When in Book 9 Adam recounts to Raphael his own memories of his first moments, we find that the first thing he did was look up instinctively to seek his maker.Eve provides an innocent contrast to this later story when (at 449-91) she recalls her own first moments.She has Adam’s inductive and inferential capacities, but seems to need some help in realizing them.If Eve is a bit narcissistic, her narcissism is of the healthy sort.She is drawn by her “reflection” in the pool to find out who she is and where she belongs.Ovid’s Narcissus was a selfish lad who refused his gifts of love to a young maiden, and he pined away with “vain desire” (Eve’s phrase) after the maiden cursed him.Eve is moved by an innocent excess of desire to seek Adam; she is charitable, not guilty of cupidity.At 480, Adam and Eve engage in an innocent version of the Ovidian erotic chase; Eve is nothing like one of Wyatt’s courtly ladies, “wild for to hold.”As so often, Milton strips away the fallenness of a literary motif or genre, taking us back to its source in charitable feeling, an outpouring of positive emotions to achieve a worthy goal.We can see Eve’s potential for spiritual and linguistic development.Adam will teach her to pray and look up rather than down.He needs her.As in Renaissance literary theory, “Reason” needs the complementarity of the imagination, which is responsible for dealing with images.Eve hardly seems rebellious at this point since she professes satisfaction with her choice to yield to Adam, as the Creator (Christ in that capacity, as the Father’s “effectual might”) suggested she should: “follow me, / And I will bring thee where no shadow stays / Thy coming . . .” (469-71), and evidently agrees with the doctrine of male superiority.Adam is the possessor of “manly grace / And wisdom” (490-91), and in Milton’s order, these things make him Eve’s mentor.
505-35.Satan has been taking all this in, and he finds much to be optimistic about: the Tree of Knowledge seems to him a “Suspicious, reasonless” (516) hindrance, or at least he will be able to sell it to them that way, stirring within them “more desire to know” (523) about the universe.What has God been keeping back from them, indeed?He sees a chance to provoke envy in Adam and Eve, and to convince them to aspire beyond their current place in the created order: the same temptation to which he himself succumbed.
539-609.Gabriel warns Uriel that the bad angel is up to no good, and promises to find him no matter what shape he may have assumed.
610-775.Eve flatters Adam with the first dawn song or aubade, beginning “Sweet is the breath of morn, her rising sweet, / With charm of earliest birds . . .” (641-42).I think we are to take this fine poem as spontaneous prayer, a source of poetry.There’s no hint of John Donne’s complaint against the “Busy old fool, unruly sun” in Eve’s song.She asks Adam a question about astronomy: “But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?” (657-58)And of course Adam responds with a perfectly proper pre-Copernican explanation: the stars “have their course to finish, round the earth” (661).It would not be good, he suggests, if night reigned perpetually, and the starshine has its own beneficence quite aside from their service to humankind.The narrator steps in with a classical allusion likening innocent Eve to Pandora, and warns that Eve’s gifts will turn out “O too like / In sad event” (715-16).Then comes Milton’s usual “sex-positive” outlook as the first couple retire for the evening: “who bids abstain / But our destroyer, for to God and man?” (748-49)
776-1015.Gabriel’s lieutenants discover Satan “Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve; / Assaying by his devilish art to reach / The organs of her fancy, and with them forge / Illusions as he list, phantasms and dreams . . .” (800-03).This act—which the narrator describes in almost erotic tones—is Satan’s way of setting the stage for the temptation to come in Book 9.Eve’s strange, ominous dream will be revealed in Book 5, and in it Satan (in his own shape rather than as a serpent) will promise her that the forbidden fruit’s virtue will make her a goddess.Eve will find the dream disturbing, but all the same her appetite has been whetted, both materially and in the sense of unlawful aspiration beyond her place and limitations.From 823 onwards, Satan brazenly defies his Gabriel and the other discoverers, of whom he seems to have no fear at all, believing himself once more than their match, at least if God hadn’t tipped the scales against him.But God again “tips the scales,” and we are told that Satan “fled / Murmuring” from the scene.But his work for the present is done.In Books 5-6, Raphael recounts for Adam and us how God had Satan in derision during the War in Heaven, and he warns Adam and Eve not to transgress, effectively preventing us from letting them off too lightly.Books 7-8 will demonstrate God’s creative power.We move from fear in Books 5-6 to a sense of wonder and reverence for the creation in Books 7-8.Structurally, this unit of Books 5-8 helps to “justify” God’s ways, partly because we are drawn to appreciate both God’s tremendous power and righteousness and the generosity of his creation of the world.Books 9-12, as a unit, will have to do with loss and compensation for what has been lost: history records the consequences of Adam and Eve’s mistake and losses in the Garden of Eden, while Adam will be granted a vision of that history that yet offers redemption, turning the fall, ultimately, into a fortunate one.
(a) Social commitment and desire for continuity in response to Civil War’s deep divisions (1642-1649).
(b) an inclination to categorize experience, nature, and literature into “kinds.”
(c) appreciation of satire; satire is a robust art form during the eighteenth century.
(d) importance of probability; thus the use of analogy as a literary figure: the two terms of the comparison both illuminate each other but remain distinct.
(e) the prevalence of moral categories—neoclassical art is often didactic.
(f) fondness for classical precedent.
(g) obedience to ordinary English grammar .
(h) categorizing the appropriate types of speech for appropriate subjects: epic for high subjects, lyric for love poetry, etc.
(i) importance of mirroring nature in art (mimesis): art should follow nature, not proclaim itself independent.
(j) skepticism about language—another reason for analogy: metaphor tends to collapse the two terms of comparison: man = pig, etc. The worry is that language can hide truth and nature just as easily as it reveals or honors them.
(k) stress on art’s utility and capacity to give pleasure (the Horatian imperative that art should be utile et dulce, useful and pleasant).Literature must both please and teach, with emphasis on the latter function.
Pope’s Era: The Neoclassical Age of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian Georges
Pope’s ideas about the value of art derive from Horace, a silver-age poet and urbane critic.Horace’s era (he lived from 65-8 BCE, covering the reign of Augustus 27BC-14 CE following the Civil War and assassination of Julius Caesar) accords well with the reign of Queen Anne in Great Britain (1702-14) and then the Hanoverian Kings George I-III (1714-27, 1727-60, 1760-1820).Alexander Pope lived from 1688-1744.The perceived need was for continuity and calm after the turmoil of the English Civil War in the 1640’s and the Puritan Rule of Cromwell in the 1650’s.Throughout the eighteenth century, that’s what many British citizens looked for in their rulers and in their literature.
This is an age in which the predominant theory of art is mimetic, meaning that readers and critics expect literature to offer them a judicious and ethically sound representation of life.And the point of such mimetic art is to influence morals for the better: as Horace had said, good art is both utile and dulce, useful and delightful.The point is that people respond emotionally to eloquence and beauty, and emotion can temper the severity and callousness of reason.It would be a mistake to think of the eighteenth century as purely an “Age of Reason”—that’s taking a motivated exaggeration at face value.After all, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume said that “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”Sentiment, properly directed and educated, was just as important as reason in this age, whatever contemporary critics claim the romantics said about their predecessors’ “overemphasis on reason” at the expense of the universal passions that bring humans together.
Eighteenth-century language theory tends towards classification—rather a scientific model of language, one distrustful of metaphor and flights of fancy.Horace made fun of the furor poeticus, and the eighteenth century is similarly distrustful of placing too much value on poetic genius and originality for the sake of originality.Imagination and language are wonderful things, but they need restraint and education to temper them into fine instruments that produce excellent works of art.The Baconian distrust of “idols” (errors due to the peculiarities of the individual and to the needs of the collective, as well as the tendency of perception to slide from raw accuracy into the dull comfort of abstractions) reigns in eighteenth-century notions of language.
Still, we need not think of this horizon of expectations as implying an insatiable appetite for pompous “poesy,” though second-rate poets may lapse into that kind of adherence to mere formal elegance.Pope himself makes fun of anyone who lards on the elegance too thick.In an era of refined art, taste and restraint are everything—one must know what to omit as well as what to include, and when an acceptable tendency becomes a travesty.Calling fish “the finny tribe” is a ludicrous abuse of the tendency to categorize individual things, sacrificing whatever is “fickle, freckled, who knows how” (Hopkins) for the sake of dull comprehensibility.The same goes for the “breeze” that “whistles through the trees” like clockwork.What an abomination against nature and poetry!In his “Essay on Criticism, Pope mocks both tendencies—abstractionism and hollow rhyming that imposes a false order on the beautiful variety of nature.
Epic Conventions and Mock Epic
When Samuel Johnson says, “nothing can please long except just representations of general nature” (nature here meaning both the environment and human nature), he speaks for a whole century’s worth of critics, readers, and audiences.Well, we might think that in such a Silver Age where decorum, observation of refined rules, maintenance of tact and restraint, are nearly everything, something as rough and rude as, say, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or satire in general would be out of place, but that isn’t the case.Satire was a favorite kind of literature during the eighteenth century, and that is where Pope’s mock epic The Rape of the Lock comes into view.Amock epic, of course, mocks the conventions and aims of epic by adhering to them, with a significant change in subject matter.In order to understand mock epic better, we should consider what an epic is.The genre is easy to define formally: “the epic is a long narrative poem involving heroic figures in the performance of heroic deeds, usually extended over a wide geographical area; it is written in a heroic or grandiose manner” (Norton and Rushton).Here are its major conventions:
1. Hero: a mythical or historical figure, usually national.
2. Subject matter: heroic deeds, battles, long journeys.
3. Verse: elevated, lofty, “heroic”; the best known device is epic simile—see PL I.331-343, 351-355, 761-798.
4. Action: intermixture of supernatural elements/ figures with human characters.
5. Place: world-wide, even cosmic, scale.
6. “Comic,” not “tragic”: the hero is successful in his exploits.
7. “Objective” poet: but consider the “Miltonic aside.”
Some of the minor conventions are as follows:
1. Invocation to the muse: PL I.1-26 and elsewhere.“Hail, Muse!” &tc.
2. Starting in medias res, as when the Odyssey begins with Odysseus having almost finished his wandering.
3. Narratives of events that transpired before the poem: “flashbacks.”
4. Formal or “set” speeches like Satan’s to his fallen legions in Paradise Lost, Books 1-2.
5. Processions of characters, as in Paradise Lost 1.376-505; catalogs of events or things.(Milton dwells on geography, etymology, and the origin of various human practices, including artistic genres.
In addition to all of the above, epic has a serious ethical purpose—it labors within the culture from which it comes, trying to affect that culture for the better: it has a cultural task.Homer wrote about the exploits of Odysseus and the wrath of Achilles, probably hoping to infuse into his own difficult times the ancient heroic virtues and the resilience of an earlier age.Virgil wrote about the sad but fortunate fall of Troy—the Trojan Aeneas had to see his city destroyed so he could sail to Italy and found a city, Lavinium, setting in motion the events that would lead to the establishment of the RomanRepublic and then the Empire.And Milton wrote Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men,” but perhaps most immediately to reassure dejected fellow Puritans that God had not abandoned them.
Mock epic is similar to satire, and it, too, might be said to have a task.One reason to satirize and mock is that the satirizer may be speaking for and to people who feel that they have little power, at least for the time being, to change things for the better.(I suppose that’s the charge running through Jon Stewart’s mock-newscasts on Comedy Central, or Stephen Colbert’s deadpan imitation of a bloviating conservative pundit.Such mockery may not exactly send people into the streets with French-Revolutionary fervor, but it’s powerful in its way because it encourages an alternative sensibility and way of understanding events alongside the official channels in the news and political realms, meaning not only politicians but those who cover them in the various “serious” media outlets.(The fact that I’ve put quotation marks around the word “serious,” thereby calling it into question, is an effect of the kind of satire I am discussing: i.e., how seriously should we take supposedly serious or official accounts of why certain domestic and foreign policies are being pursued?)But in Pope’s case, perhaps the poet is just responding to a need for his culture to examine its tendencies lest they become empty exaggerations.Mock-epic may serve as a warding-off gesture, a warning that today’s happy conformity—a society with lots of “shiny happy people holding hands” and mostly accepting the same fundamental assumptions about themselves, their government, and the world at large—might well be tomorrow’s stale, real-life parody.Perhaps conformity itself soon becomes morbid “me-too-ism” (a lame excuse for healthy existence), or generates excesses in the other direction (rebelliousness, that is), so it needs to be questioned frequently and searchingly.
That’s a serious social “task” to ascribe to mockery and satire.I think it’s the one most appropriate to Pope: he speaks as a man of letters to those whose assumptions he mostly shares.His Catholicism in a deeply Protestant country makes him something other than a simple adherent to neoclassical taste and political values.His traditionalism is somewhat self-conscious, I should think—he’s not the kind of aristocratic brute who absorbs his “values” from the nice thick beefsteak he gnaws every evening and the good wine with which he washes it down.As the Norton introduction says, Pope is the first man of letters to make a comfortable living by writing—his father was a prosperous merchant, and Pope lifted himself into even more polite society by means of literary skill.Moreover, he belongs early in the tradition we may trace down to Wilde and then the Modernists—artists of great culture and learning who fear the effects of “mass culture” both upon society at large and, more narrowly, upon the arts.But on the whole, Pope fits into the Horatian tradition that says art’s mission is to render in a decorous manner what the public already believes, and to influence and gently uplift the reading public’s manners and morals.
Notes on The Rape of the Lock
What Pope does in The Rape of the Lock is reflect humorously on the elaborate quality of gender relations in his day.He makes fun of the era’s assumptions about female virtue—in the poem, the language of commodification and ethics seem to go together, and the male superiority posited by the “honor code” is made to appear ridiculous.A woman’s position in Pope’s time was complex—women were hemmed in by all sorts of constraints, yet they were very important in symbolic terms.The image of the female was central to notions of domesticity and morals, her beauty bodying forth the goodness of the social order itself, rather like the courtier’s grace signifying the sovereign’s legitimacy and rightness in earlier times, in the Renaissance Courts of Europe and England.
Dedication to Mrs. Arabella Fermor
2514.Pope makes fun of modern triviality, but as a critic he maintains a balance of view regarding the quarrel of the ancients and moderns.Ancient epic, after all, sometimes makes trivial things seem important, deflating human pretensions.Homer certainly does that.As for the addition of Rosicrucian supernatural machinery, Pope’s use of such trappings is hardly dismissive; rather, I suppose he is emulating Milton’s angelic hosts and “devils to adore for deities” of Paradise Lost.
13-26: Morning; Belinda asleep; Ariel; Belinda dreams of a young beau; Ariel speaks
27-114: Ariel’s address; the sylphs take charge of Belinda; picture of the beau monde; the game of sex
115-20: Belinda wakes
121-48: The toilet
2515-16.From line 67 and following, honor is a wispy thing, a tactical affair rather than a sacred virtue.We can’t escape the “war between the sexes,” the poem seems to be telling us, and women, it’s suggested, tend to be flighty and vain when it comes to love matters.
2517.Belinda is warned of a “dread event” (109) by Ariel, her guardian Sylph.But her thoughts flow to material things lying around her, a glittering and reflective environment.At lines 125-26, there’s a hint of Eve’s innocent narcissism in Paradise Lost: “A heavenly image in the glass appears; / To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.”
001-018: Belinda rises from her toilet:her beauty
019-028: Belinda’s locks
029-046: The Baron desires Belinda’s beauty
047-052: Belinda secure
053-072: Ariel gloomy and anxious, summons his battalions
073-136: Ariel’s speech
137-142: The sylphs await events
2520.The Rosicrucian spirits take their stations.At lines 90-92, Pope echoes Milton’s invocation in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, redefining the proper subject of epic, suiting the subject to the form.At lines 106-09, the narrator equates honor with a china jar, and these lines offer a series of disjunctive references.It’s hard to take honor too seriously when we see it placed adjacent to such trivial objects, and the verse form reinforces the conflation-effect: “Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade, / Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball”The stopping-points in these lines, the caesuras, drive home the point.
001-018: The setting of Hampton Court
019-104: The “Battle” of Ombre
105-124: Taking coffee:the Baron gets an idea
125-154: THE RAPE OF THE LOCK
155-160: Belinda’s horror
161-178: The Baron’s triumph; the glories of steel
2521-23.To Hampton Court we go, as if the place were heaven or Olympus.At lines 19-22, Pope’s epigrammatic style sums up the truth of a fifty-page sociology paper on the justice system: “wretches hang that jurymen may dine.”At lines 25 and following, the epic battle for Belinda’s heart: a game of Ombre (http://webpages.shepherd.edu/maustin/ombre/ombre.htm).Such games are, like chess, bound up with strategy, and are a surrogate form of chivalric containment of violence.Perhaps there’s an implicit criticism of modern love here, but it could also be that Pope aims at something more uplifting.It is human to “methodize” nature, to set up rules and conventions, and so long as they remain rooted in human nature, all is well.We live in societies so that we may be “to advantage dressed.”These are phrases from Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”Love is civil, elaborate, and involves strategy and deferral of desire.So in this sense, a game like Ombre, with its complex rules and competitive spirit, is a good figure for erotic pursuits.
2523-24.Belinda’s scissors give the Baron his chance.The chivalric references in the passage introduce ambivalence about the event that will soon transpire.Ariel’s power dissipates because he knows Belinda isn’t, perhaps, so dead-set against the Baron as she professes herself.So the trappings of deferral and civility must give way.For the moment, however, they give way to high wrath, almost Achilles-like wrath.But that too, it’s fair to suggest, is just another kind of delay.
001-010: Belinda’s sorrow
011-088: Umbriel visits the Cave of Spleen; obtains the bag and vial from the Goddess
089-094: Belinda in the arms of Thalestris
095-120: Thalestris’ speech
121-130: Sir Plume:demands the Baron return the lock
131-140: The Baron refuses
141-146: Belinda renews her grief
147-176: Belinda’s speech
2525.The lock has now been seized, and Umbriel goes to the underworld, or here the Cave of Spleen.Just as Odysseus and Aeneas had to communicate with the underworld to complete their journeys, so Belinda’s love can only be accomplished or won with a journey to the bottom of it all: melancholy, stormy passion.Umbriel makes sure that she will be afflicted with Ill Humour.
2528.Sir Plume the beau plays the role of Collatinus, the injured husband of Lucretia.But his stake in the action is rather general, a matter of principle, as signified by a rap on the snuffbox.
001-008: Belinda’s speech has no effect; Clarissa prepares to speak
009-034: Clarissa’s speech
035-074: The beaux and the ladies fight
075-102: Belinda and the Baron fight:Belinda’s victory
103-112: Belinda demands the lock, but it is missing
113-150: The apotheosis of the lock
2529-30.Clarissa’s grave lesson is “she who scorns a man must die a maid.”But fierce Thalestris wins out against this privileging of merit over looks and manners.Clarissa speaks around line 30 to the “hemmed in” status of eighteenth-century women, their power came from manipulating men within a complex set of fules.Women were expected to give in and yet maintain the important ideal of chastity.
2531-32.No way will Belinda recover her lost lock of hair, which symbolizes female honor.But neither will the Baron keep it as a trophy to gloat over.So there has to be an apotheosis, where the material lock becomes a poetic symbol of feminine honor.Art here helps to maintain civility in the necessary “war” between desire’s deferral and its satisfaction.
Notes on Eloisa to Abelard
The poem is genuinely medieval in sentiment—strong passions are constrained by convent walls and barbarous guards of honor.Eloisa and Abelard have become disembodied voices, confined to what they can write at long distance.They have no direct contact.Eloisa remains defiant, refusing fully to sublimate her erotic passion for Abelard into spiritual adoration of Christ.Her defiance is risky since she won’t give up an inappropriate love interest, one that the situation would seem to demand she put behind her.And she is quite self-conscious on this dilemma.What’s striking about the poem is how it manages, thanks to Pope’s virtuosity, to be both elegant and genuinely emotional: it isn’t easy to write love poetry in heroic couplets, but Pope has done it.
General Notes on Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”
Nature: nature is structured like the human mind, and it operates in a rational and stable way. The ancients based their works upon nature, so studying Homer is like going back to nature, both in the sense of “human nature” and the physical environment. Literary and social rules are not merely prescriptive; they are instead based on the close observation of nature—that’s why we should follow them, and why we should value the ancients. Not to hold them in high regard merely shows that we have gone astray from what Dr. Johnson will later call “just representations of general nature.”
Imitation: Notice the predominance in the eighteenth century of certain mimetic figures: mirror, speech as dress, ornament. What is to be dressed and finely decked out with words is “nature,” human nature, or the social and political hierarchy. These are already solid and “there.”The point is to make them memorable and attractive. In this way, poetry is a species of elegant rhetoric, whose point is to reaffirm the belief that our ways and understandings are right. “Whatever is, is right,” as Pope says.Neoclassical critics generally support the principle of hierarchy underlying the social order, so they can conceive of a genial, erudite critic who does justice to the work itself and helps a broader public (gentlefolk, not Dickensian kitchen scullions and street-sweepers) understand the work’s complexities to as great an extent as possible. Such a critic serves the text and the public.Some modern cultural theories, by contrast, betray an anxiety that culture is either a top-down ideological control mechanism or an exercise in commercial vulgarianism: bread and circuses, “infotainment,” etc.
Analyzing the relationship between author/work/public and criticism demands consideration of art’s cultural value: does literature reflect an already held value system and merely dress or adorn it? Or is it a shaping force, a creator of culture, rather than a passive storehouse of normative ideas and aesthetic images? We can see art as establishing and maintaining consensus, or as tearing it down in favor of something new. It seems reasonable to say that it has done all these things and that critics, depending on their political and social leanings, have responded in very diverse ways. Some critics see themselves as guardians of culture—highbrow watchdogs, one might say—while others see themselves as unmasking texts’ claims to normative status with regard to social and political ideals, and still others claim they’re more or less operating in a politics-free zone where they should strive to “see the object as in itself it really is” (to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase) or work with a literary text entirely on its own terms (the New Critics of the 1930s-50’s in America).But even staking out a claim for the legitimacy of “apolitical” or “formalist” analysis is itself a political gesture since it means the critic is consciously refraining from or arguing against certain kinds of interpretation of a more political bent—today’s “cultural studies,” for example, would hardly be sympathetic to the notion that works of art exist in an autonomous realm independent of life’s other dimensions.
From the eighteenth century onwards, the notion of a “public” and even of several levels of public readership, from the low to the high, becomes an issue. We see the rise and fall of the man of letters and the advent of what George Gissing describes in New Grub Street as hack journalists and critics churning out pablum for a quarter-educated public. Pope isn’t facing this crass commercialization of art to the lowest common denominator. But you can see in his admonitions that critics should “know their limits” a flicker of anxiety that criticism may be starting to pander to a paying public that has its own not-so-well-considered ideas about what is worth reading. (Samuel Johnson, too, will later betrays much the same anxiety: who is going to be reading all those newly published novels?Mostly young and impressionable ordinary people, he fears.)Modern artists have sometimes tried to turn this relationship to a powerful public into a positive thing, but to varying degrees the attempt can require ceding ground on old claims surrounding art’s power to change individuals and even entire societies.Some further questions and observations:
1.Are literary authors superior to critics, and if so, on what grounds should we say that they are?
2.Is critics’ task to explain the text, or might they be best advised to add to, supplement, or go beyond it, perhaps using it as a springboard for their own observations?Or are all of those things good in their own way?Moreover, many contemporary theorists assert an independent right to do what they do, and don’t see themselves as simply serving as assistants to artists or explicating “primary texts.” What does that assertion imply about criticism’s role, and about the traditional notions that art exists innocently as an autonomous realm or that it merely adorns a culture’s values?
3.To what extent should literary authors and artists be familiar with criticism about their own work, or, more broadly, with the critical tradition as a whole?Is an artist likely to be better for being a critic, or would that just get in the way of artistic creation?What examples can you think of to illustrate both tendencies?Name a few literary or other kind of artists who seem not to have been interested in criticism, and a few who have doubled as critics in their own right.
4.Rejecting the responsibility of the explicator-critic to make texts accessible to a broad public narrows the critical function more or less to academic circles. Is that an entirely bad thing?Why or why not?Might it not be said that there is much of value that the public can’t appreciate that nonetheless shouldn’t be hounded out of existence, or that sometimes authors or entire schools of art become popular only long after their own time, and go nearly unregarded while they are still “in the making”?But what about the counter-charge that the arts (and criticism) shouldn’t be so distant from the needs and sensibilities of “ordinary people” that they lose all social impact?What happens to art if it becomes thought of as the product of marginalized, specialized labor rather than as something vital in which everyone has an interest?Is that where we are now in terms of how we think about art, or is the situation less bleak than that?
Page-by-Page Notes on “An Essay on Criticism,” Part 1
2497/441. “Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss” (6) and “In poets as true genius is but rare, / True taste as seldom is the critic’s share” (11-12).Pope values criticism for the same reason Horace does—the tasteful critic takes note of the best work (work possessed of genius) and makes it available for public appreciation and emulation by contemporary authors. But criticism quickly becomes a self-referential, self-perpetuating industry, one almost detached from its object. Bad critics pander to a vulgar public—Pope himself make his living as a writer, so he must have understood why other critics might be tempted to do that.
2498/442. “Be sure yourself and your own reach to know, / How far your genius, taste, and learning go” (48-49).As Pope writes at the beginning of the second epistle of his “Essay on Man,” “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, / The proper study of mankind is Man.” Here at lines 46-49 is the lesson adapted for critics, who can’t just spin literary rules from their own heads, or presume to be experts in what they really don’t understand. The great author of classical times isn’t to be condemned because he does something the critic can’t process. Homer and Virgil constitute an external, transhistorical, universal set of standards to which critics must conform their sensibilities: taste is intricately tied to education.Even the erudite person has limits, a “point where sense and dullness meet,” and must begin with frank acknowledgment of those limits, lest the public be misled by vain obscurantists about the true value of a given work.This line of thinking seems reminiscent of Socrates’ distrust of squirrelly rhapsodes like Ion who suppose they are the masters of every craft because they can talk about them fluently.But unlike Plato, Pope seems to think the practice of criticism can rise to the live of a genuine craft; it need not be considered mere dilettantish twaddle about “copies of copies of copies.”
2298/442-43. “Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, / One clear, unchanged, and universal light…” (70-71). Nature is “the source, and end, and test in art” (73). Mind and nature work analogously; the world follows Reason, and is an intelligential order, so that to study the world around us is to study something that operates in accordance with principles we should be able to grasp.The artist and critic help us appreciate the intelligibility of the natural order, the compatibility between mind and nature.
2499/443. “Those rules of old, discovered, not devised, / Are Nature still, but Nature methodized…” (88-89). Neoclassical authors such as Pope are careful to insist on selection from nature: Nature must be “methodized” in the sense that we must intelligently derive appropriate rules for human conduct from it.Pope does not suggest that authors should “copy” nature in the lowest sense. This carefulness is partly due to the moral (pragmatic) demand of neoclassical criticism: art should teach by delighting. But it is also an Aristotelian requirement to derive the universal significance from the particular instance.The rules are themselves rooted in nature, so conventions are natural to humanity, not mere extrinsic ornaments or ungrounded artifice.(Another way to gloss the term “artifice” is to say that it’s fine so long as it is rooted in nature, not totally independent of it.)Pope points to ancient Greece as a time when critics, artists, and the people had forged the right relationship
2500/445.“When first young Maro in his boundless mind / A work to outlast immortal Rome designed, / Perhaps he seemed above the critic’s law, / And but from Nature’s fountains scorned to draw; / But when to examine every part he came, / Nature and Homer were, he found, the same . . .” (130-35).Homer was a great observer of human nature and of the natural environment and its processes, so to derive the rules for epic from him is to derive them from nature itself.Virgil, in essence, went to Homer as a critic and was inspired by that artist’s universal, transhistorical excellence to write his own excellent epic, one appropriate to his own time and place, which was Augustan Rome.
2500-01/445.“Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend, / And rise to faults that critics dare not mend. . .” (152).Such a great wit or artist, says Pope, may “snatch a grace beyond the reach of art, / Which, without passing through the judgment, gains / The heart . . .” (155-57).He’s probably alluding to Shakespeare above all: when Shakespeare seems to violate the rules of good drama, we should most often credit him with the genius it takes to make new rules based on seeing something in human or physical nature that nobody has ever seen before.A person with such a gift must be granted wide latitude, and “rules” must never be applied so prescriptively that they keep us from appreciating a work of genius.Moreover, sometimes what may appear to be a flaw shows its true virtue when viewed from a distance, from a different perspective; this is something we must watch out for in reading Homer, who, Pope famously says, is never mistaken: “Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream” (180).
Page-by-Page Notes on “An Essay on Criticism,” Part 2
2501-02/446. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” (215). Pope is against mediocrity for the same reason as Horace: art should reflect our society and values to us elegantly; that is the meaning of decorum. Otherwise, we end up with Plato’s demagogues and critics and artists pandering to the lowest common denominator. In that case, art would not exert any shaping power, and we would be on a degenerative arc with respect to the ancients. At the bottom of 2502, Pope insists we must know the whole work, not just the parts; we should note “the joint force and full result of all” (246).
2505/447. “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed; / Something whose truth convinced at sight we find, / That gives us back the image of our mind” (297-300). True wit does not get itself a raised podium or become its own order of things; the intellect’s glory doesn’t consist in departing radically from what common humanity thinks but rather in expressing something common in a fine, appropriate manner. Some eighteenth-century authors distrust words and wittiness because they tend to get in the way of truth and “things as they are,” but judiciously crafted language dresses or adorns nature to advantage. Just as fashion succeeds only when it knows the body well, so art must accord with human nature and with the order of things. Moreover, the notion that words clothe thought implies that thought itself refers to a stable order of things prior to language. The emphasis is on coherence, on building and maintaining consensus. True wit is like nature in that both give us back a proper image of our minds.The term “wit” is an important one in eighteenth-century literature; in faculty psychology, the “inner wits” are imagination, fantasy, and memory, which process and recall sensory data, and judgment and common sense or sensus communis.But more broadly, as the OED explains, the term means “The seat of consciousness or thought, the mind,” and in the plural, “intellectual powers.”The last-mentioned is the meaning that best fits Pope’s usage in line 297: true intelligence or right-thinking.
2504/448. “But true expression, like the unchanging sun, / Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon; / It gilds all objects, but it alters none. / Expression is the dress of thought…” (315-18). Language should clarify things and “gild them,” but it should not change the object or lead us away from just appreciation of it. Felicity lies in apprehending the order of things, and in expressing that order attractively. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold would later call for critics to “see the object as in itself it really is”—a statement that seems neoclassical in its reassertion of human values as solid, factual, and real.
2504-05/450.“But most by numbers judge a poet’s song, / And smooth or rough with them is right or wrong” (337-38).Pope, though a great employer of the heroic couplet and the elegant phrase, doesn’t reduce poetry to rhyme or smooth meter; as he says, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense” (365).Milton, too,in his preface to Paradise Lost, had rejected the notion that rhyme and such devices were essential to poetry; rhyme, he said, was “no necessary Adjunct to true Ornament” in a poem—especially a long one with a complex subject to develop.Pope also writes that “Some foreign writers, some our own despise; / the ancients only, or the moderns prize…” (394-95) and that a fine critic will “At every trifle scorn to take offense” (386). Pope does not simply say the ancient authors are better: the category true-false does not reduce to old-new in this regard, and neither is carping and nitpicking an appropriate way to proceed.Such behavior merely shows the critic to be petty and inhumane.Conversely, what’s needed is not blind partisan advocacy of an author’s merits but instead judicious, constructive remarks: “For fools admire, but men of sense approve” (391).
2508/454.“Nor in the critic let the man be lost! / Good nature and good sense must ever join; / To err is human, to forgive divine” (523-25).The goal for criticism generally is to improve public taste and promote an intelligent consensus in social and moral affairs, in so far as art touches upon them.The phrase “the public” implies a degree of democracy—it’s starting to matter in Pope’s day what an increasingly broad public thinks about various issues, even if democratic reforms will have to wait until the nineteenth century.Since the function of the critic is to inform the public’s taste and morals, the critic must behave in a civil manner. Later, in Part 3 (lines 631-32), Pope says that pride is the main fault of intellectuals, thus continuing a thought that he had voiced earlier: “But where’s the man, who counsel can bestow, / Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?”Sir Philip Sidney had described the way to move people towards virtuous action along similar lines: they must have enough humility to see that it’s their job to please the public and move its members towards virtuous action.Art shouldn’t be about self-aggrandizement, and neither should criticism. That is a typical 18th-century notion, too—literature is said to better than philosophy because it has broader appeal. If critics are authorities, they are benevolent ones, not tyrants because genuine consensus cannot be achieved by tyrannical or destructive means.