Poet of Exile: A Study of Milton’s Poetry
An appreciation of Milton, Mark Pattison said, is the last reward of consummated scholarship. The remark, with its remote echoes of the proverb “See Naples and die,” was made about a hundred years ago, when commentary on the poet might well have been housed in the six good-sized rooms that the younger Scaliger thought sufficient for a proper humanist library. Now that works of explication, criticism, biography, textual analysis, background information, and introductory explanation have multiplied beyond all calculations, what Pattison said is more true than ever. What sort of general three-hundred-page book can one write about Milton’s poetic achievement when the pile of commentary is already so thick?
It isn’t simply that thousands of passages are open to variant readings and contrasting emphases. Out of all this material have been composed a number of entirely different Miltons, sometimes incompatible with one another, more often just ill-assorted. There is a high-church Milton (Augustinian, hierarchical, Catholic) and a Puritan Milton (libertarian, strict-constructionist, illuminate) who really do not get on well together; not even Milton the Christian humanist can quite reconcile these quarrelsome offspring of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
There is an Arian Milton, an eschatological Milton, and a Talmudic Milton whose primary interest was subtle medieval rabbis like Rashi and Ibn Ezra. There is a Milton whose greatest poem records only partially successful struggles with an intractable fable and a malign, tyrannical Deity—One who deliberately creates agents whose sin He foreknows, and Who then punishes them for sinning. There is a Milton who cheerfully imitates his Creator’s dirty tricks by trapping his reader into worldly if not sinful responses, then beating him over the ear with a theological pandybat. There are Promethean Miltons, Whig Miltons, patriotic English Miltons, ironic Miltons, plus a whole coven of nasty Miltons, mostly Victorian in their costuming, who can be found in the works of the modern anti-Miltonists.
Working one’s way through these various Miltons and the critical evidence out of which they have been compounded can be heavy going, and an introductory book is almost bound to select its own particular Milton and present him at length, while relegating other Miltons to the outer darkness of footnotes and appendices. That, at least, is the procedure adopted by Professor Louis Martz in his new book; and the first thing to be said of it is that the figure he gives us is very much a high-church Milton. This Milton is not a revolutionary propagandist, not a rude bishop-baiter, not a harsh derider of dead King Charles’s book. He is a poet of exile because his real country is that of the soul.
“Poet of exile” sounds rather odd when applied to a man who spent all but two years of his life in his native land, and rarely ventured more than a few miles from his native city. Still, it denotes very accurately the emphasis of Martz’s book, which implies that Milton was a lofty spirit fallen into an ugly world and out of place there. The book is devoted exclusively to Milton’s poetry, referring only briefly and incidentally to his prose and hardly at all to the turbulent events of his times. The word “puritan” is not used till page 116 and only once thereafter; Oliver Cromwell creeps in as an adjectival noun (“a Cromwellian”) on page 261. The presence of John Calvin in the thought of Milton is admitted; but he is a notably unwelcome guest, and wherever possible he is dismissed or minimized.
Poet of Exile, as it frankly declares, has been long in the making, and the different parts have been several times revised. One finds in it two distinct kinds of writing. In the first, the poems are read singly, sequentially, and in rough chronological order. This exposition is carried on by means of alternating synopsis, quotation, and paraphrase (hardly the keenest of critical instruments), with occasional commentary, explanatory or directive. The greater part of this material seems adjusted to readers who will be encountering Milton for the first time, or who need reminding of each poem’s particular pattern. In Chapters IX through XIV, on the other hand, we enter upon a series of thematic arguments which involve the relation of Milton’s poetry to the Lusiad of Camoens, to the Georgics of Virgil, and to the poetry (mostly the Metamorphoses) of Ovid. These two elements in the new volume are so distinct that they may best be considered separately.
Quotation and paraphrase, the sermo humilis of criticism, lead us on a straight if not a very wide path through “Comus” and “Lycidas”; but in Paradise Lost we start to become aware of some curious gaps. The war in heaven, the part played in it by Abdiel, the curious mixture of material and spiritual powers, the galumphing spirit of comedy—all call, one would think, for a bit of comment. They do not get it. More striking yet, the important scene of Eve’s temptation and fall (Boox IX, verses 665-840 approximately) is exempted completely from paraphrase, quotation, or commentary. Conflicting views have been proposed over what Eve’s eating of the apple “represents”—whether disobedience to an arbitrary commandment on a matter indifferent in itself, sensual appetite ranging from lunchtime appetite to lascivious sex (Augustine says there was sex in Paradise, but it was rational; Eve had already had that sort, and perhaps what she wanted in the apple was something a bit jazzier), passion as opposed to reason, female desire of dominion over the male, idle curiosity, or something else entirely. The reader who will profit by the sort of close explanation that is devoted to Books VII and VIII might welcome, as well, a little critical guidance on the central episode of the entire poem.
Another notable omission in Martz’s book is his neglect of the moving scene in Book X (lines 865-940) where Eve turns around the entire action of the book with her passionate address to Adam:
On me exercise not
Thy hatred for this misery befall’n,
On me already lost, mee than thy- self
More miserable; both have sinn’d, but thou
Against God only, I against God and thee,
And to the place of judgment will return,
There with my cries importune Heaven, that all
The sentence from thy head re- mov’d may light
On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe,
Mee mee only just object of his ire.
It is a marvelous scene, in which Eve moves directly and passionately to the heart of the conclusion that Adam had previously argued out with a great deal of male verbosity and even more male insincerity. (How typical that after proving to himself that he alone is to blame for his plight, he greets his wife with the furious, “Out of my sight, thou serpent!”) The poem pivots on Eve’s response, as much as on her eating of the apple; but Martz does not comment on the scene. And finally, in the discussion of Samson Agonistes, a poem rightly complained of by Doctor Johnson for its lack of a middle, the one decisive action (contrasting with three indecisive encounters with Manoa, Dalila, Harapha) occurs secretly and undramatically in the form of those “rousing motions” within Samson’s conscience (verse 1382). “Secret refreshings” the Chorus calls them elsewhere in the poem; it is their coming that redeems the time spent on the barren action and empty questioning of the poem’s middle. But again nothing is said.
The motivations and choices of Milton’s poems are especially hard to reconstruct because they depend so largely on narratives that Milton was given and could not alter. Why does Adam, even though he knows better, partake of the apple so unhesitatingly when Eve offers it to him? The complexities of feeling Adam might have had toward this action are well analyzed by Martz; but in fact Milton does everything he can to keep Adam and the reader from thinking about the matter at all. Genesis 1 is the basis of the story, and there’s no altering it; Adam must fall with Eve, and if proper motivations can’t readily be found, it’s the business of the poet to keep the reader from looking for any—and above all from thinking of Adam’s alternatives. Again, why does Christ, tempted by Satan atop the pinnacle (Paradise Regained IV, 541-559), answer simply, “Tempt not the Lord thy God”? Perhaps to express the three distinct meanings given by Martz; perhaps also because these are the words used in Luke 4:12, the text on which the entire poem is based.
The more substantial and impressive part of Martz’s book concerns three places (the last two books of Paradise Lost, all of Paradise Regained, and the middle of Samson Agonistes) in which Milton made use of a “lowered” style, less colorful imagistically and less extended syntactically, than one finds in the great passages of “Lycidas” and Paradise Lost. The last two books of the great epic present a particularly interesting problem which Professor Martz goes a long way toward solving, even as he appears to yield before it. In entering those last books, the poet is descending from the realms of light and heroic myth, entering those of history and troubled individual morality—regions where Milton expects the now-edified reader to recognize as his own the burden of Adam’s sin, and to renew the better fight of patience and heroic martyrdom, where it must be fought, in this world, not without dust and heat.
Earth is, as Milton says solidly, “my native element”; it is also ours, the readers’. We have our place in the epic, along with the poet; he would not want us to miss it. One can sense a narrowing movement across the entire epic, from the immensities of Satan’s first flight across the big cosmos, to exploration of the little cosmos (hung off one corner of Heaven, a glistening toy of concentric spheres, the Ptolemaic universe), to earth at the center of it, to the garden of Eden, to the bower inside it, to the inmost consciousness of Adam and Eve—and finally to the consciousness of the reader, in whom can be seen in small the same principles animating the myth at large. Earth colors are appropriate to an action that is henceforth on and of the earth; the “legislative style” (Dryden’s phrase, elegantly picked up and adapted by Martz) is exactly the right term for the way these last books smooth off Adam’s emotional ups and downs, preparing the human couple for a long haul under a heavy burden toward a heavenly city that is still only a light on the far horizon of the future.
I confess to being less impressed with the argument that Milton’s lowering tone is to be explained as a consequence of deliberate ironic contrasts with the endings of the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses, and Camoens’s national epic, the Lusiad. To be at all effective, an ironic contrast has to bring two elements into some sort of juxtaposition. When Milton, at the very threshold of his epic, promises to deal with “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” there’s a nice, sly little joke to be appreciated, in that his boast of originality is itself a copy of Ariosto’s “Cosa non detta in prosa mai, ne in rima.” If you know Ariosto at all, you can’t miss it. But that Milton intended us to think of Camoens in these last two books because he wrote them in such a different style is a very hard argument to make. Indeed, Paradise Lost is very different from most of the imperial epics, that fact needs no demonstration. But to see it as imitating them where it is similar to them, and as making ironic contrasts where it’s different, is to blur its outlines as an independent work of art. The inherent poetic reasons for its gliding down gently toward a humble, intimate, and “psychological” conclusion are sufficient.
With Paradise Regained, the case is altered. The quiet, inward tone of this mini-epic about Christ’s encounter with Satan in the wilderness does not represent a deliberate decline, but a refusal to rise. Partly this may be because the poem does not really present a conflict. Christ as represented in Milton’s poem never wavers, never doubts, is never even interested in Satan’s insidious propositions. The preconditions and consequences of man’s fall in Paradise Lost are cosmic; the events of Paradise Regained take place before Christ was known to the world, in absolute solitude, and without positive consequences of any sort. All the stylistic traditions of the New Testament point toward an almost pastoral simplicity of setting and language. In addition, Martz argues in a special appendix, the Georgics of Virgil provided Milton with an example of the middle style, capable of serving humble didactic and descriptive ends, but also of rising to almost epic power. (Like most ideas about Milton, this one has a long pedigree, through E.M.W. Tillyard  to Charles Dunster .)
The connection isn’t easily made because the Georgics have a wide if mostly second-hand reputation as a kind of Roman Farmer’s Almanac in verse. Actually, they comprise a treatise on Roman religion as well, rising in passages like the concluding fable of Aristaeus to a level just short of epic. Their possible influence on Milton’s style in Paradise Regained might be reinforced by the thought that behind them lie the further examples of Hesiod certainly and Callimachus perhaps, both authors of didactic or idyllic epics. Our common conception of “epic,” based exclusively on Homer and Virgil, obscures the possibility of less grandiose variants, but Milton himself apparently defined the epic genre quite broadly; Martz might have noted, for example, that in “The Reason of Church Government” he speaks of the Book of Job as a brief epic. It is not only brief, it combines the “low” realism of ulcers and ashes with a tone of passive fortitude and a vision of the sublime. And that’s another possible precedent for what we could call the subdued, intermittently exalted style of Paradise Regained, and for that matter of Samson Agonistes.
The choruses of Samson are a famous problem, admiringly analyzed by Robert Bridges in his classic study of Milton’s Prosody (1893), and liberally denounced since then by Leavis, Pound, et al. Martz seems about ready to abandon the case for them. But perhaps the analogy with Job will enable us to have it both ways. The Chorus in Samson can well be seen as an assemblage of Job’s comforters—mostly platitudinous and vacant, occasionally capable of grasping and voicing a little of what’s going on in the soul of Samson. But no more than his three interlocutors are they able to intuit or influence his full destiny; like Christ in Paradise Regained, and like Job as well, Samson is impervious to sympathy, temptation, or attack from fellow mortals. Accordingly, the drama is one of waiting for interior lightning to strike. Indeed, the three interlocutors (Manoa, Dalila, Harapha) are increasingly exterior in their relation to Samson: Manoa fond but senile, Dalila specious but with a poisonous sting (cf. Sin in Paradise Lost), Harapha nothing but a tin suit of armor. The drama is going all the wrong way till the Lord speaks to Samson invisibly, “secretly” (Milton’s favorite concept and frequent word in these last poems).
Thus the structure of Samson can be compared with that of the Philistine temple—formal, fair, poised, and static—till the secret voice inside Samson’s mind brings it crashing down. If this or something like this is the pattern of the poem (like Paradise Regained, it is three nay-sayings followed by a miracle in form of a cataclysm), it’s idle to complain of the lack of action or the emptiness of the choruses, as it would be to lodge analogous complaints against Waiting for Godot. Suspended action is mirrored in suspended resolutions, irregular rhythms, and imperfect rhymes through the body of the poem; these irregularities are resolved in the Chorus’s last chant of barbaric jubilation, then tempered into a final, perfectly formed sonnet, with its sinuous pattern of advance and recall.
They are both strange and wonderful poems, and through both there resounds a note of vindictiveness very distressing for those who prefer a genteel and humane Milton. The surprise will be less for those who have followed his polemical career. Martz is distressed by Christ’s contemptuous dismissal of humane learning in Paradise Regained, and proposes that we turn for consolation to Samson. It is a case of the frying pan and the fire. Just half a century ago, Tillyard, speaking of Samson, invoked “settled ferocity,” “savage jubilation,” and other expressions which may be read at large in Part III, chapter 12 of his Milton (1930). At this stage, there seems little point in denying that Milton, in the last years of his life, was a bitter and disappointed man, whose faith was far from melting into Arminianism and Pelagianism, the modern heresies which are so soft that most people don’t even know they hold them.
We can’t modernize Milton, and, much to his credit, Professor Martz doesn’t really try. His book falls into line with others by Hanford, Tillyard, and Daiches, as well as the splendidly useful edition of Merritt Y. Hughes, in providing a solid general introduction to the poet’s work, with some specially sharp insights into its patterning, and rather less attention to the doctrinal backgrounds than has been customary. It isn’t a book blossoming with fresh or various insights; one gets little sense of the subject being turned or handled to show off the variety of its many lights and facets. But if supplemented by the work of—for example—William Haller, William Empson, Christopher Hill, and B. Rajan, it could provide a substantial lead into the poetic work of Milton.