The New Compass: A Critical Review



[Home]   [About TNC]   [Current Issue]   [Archive]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]   [Contact]



Justifying Milton?

A Reply to Ian Robinson


John Baxter



In his piece in the first issue of The New Compass,[1] Ian Robinson does a wonderful job of continuing the discussion with the late C.Q. Drummond.[2] What significance does Paradise Lost have for us now, in life and in literature? By asking this question once more, he takes us to the heart of the matter, making a daring and wholly successful use of Blake in the process and offering a generous but not wholly successful refutation of Drummond.


Blake, says Robinson, shows us innocence from the perspective of experience. His point is not simply that the two states are “contrasts” (Robinson’s term) or “opposites” (Coleridge) or “contraries” (Blake himself), but that each can be seen only with the help of the other. His further point is that Milton, in spite of his commitment to a storyline leading from one state to the other, knows this as well as Blake does. Paradise Lost, Robinson says, is immediately lifted when Satan sees Adam and Eve (in Book 4): “This is unmistakable in the poetry, which soars from the rather uninspired level of the tranquil garden to something which it took the full power of a great poet to create. Milton here solves the problem of the presentation of innocence in the only possible way, by showing how it is viewed by experience, in this case by the worst possible experience.” It’s an acute observation and also, surely, the corollary of the fact that Satan is never more securely in Hell than when he is in the presence of Adam and Eve—when experience sees itself from the perspective of innocence.


Whether or not this use of contrasts altogether rescues the poem from what Robinson calls “the gross and deep flaw of the attempt at sequential narrative” is another matter, but it does persuasively rescue Paradise Lost from the famous criticisms leveled first by Blake and later by Shelley. Milton, Robinson shows, is “certainly not of the Devil’s party with or without knowing it.” At least not in this part of the poem. Robinson doesn’t take up the issue of whether the characterization of Satan is consistent throughout the whole.


As for Drummond, his position, by analogy with Blake’s, may fairly be said to claim that Milton of is Adam’s party without altogether knowing it, or knowing it only intermittently. Robinson doesn’t quite go the whole way in endorsing Drummond’s claim that in showing what is supposedly Adam’s fall, Milton gives us “the greatest love poetry in the language,” but his treatment of Drummond at this point is extraordinarily generous. He agrees that Milton is “at his best when he most needs to be, at the moment of the fall itself,” and then he quotes the crucial lines (from which passage I excerpt only the conclusion):


Should God create another Eve, and I

           Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee

           Would never from my heart; no, no, I feel

           The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,

           Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State

           Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.[3] (IX.911-16)


Robinson gives what might be called (following his own coinage) a Drummondist reading of these lines, though it attempts, in the middle, to disarm the Drummondian consequences: “Here Milton is at his most Shakespearean, with a wholeness of language that is one mark of great poetry. And the power of the poetry is not deceptive and not against Milton’s myth or his stated intention. This is what marriage is in the world: they are indeed one flesh.”


Since this marriage poetry is an expression of love, and since this expression is embedded in the very instant of the Fall, there are some very pressing questions as to how it could possibly not run against the grain of Milton’s myth or his stated intention. Is it Milton’s intention to characterize the act of disobedience as, simultaneously, an expression of the deepest kind of love? Robinson’s intentions in suggesting as much themselves cry out for explanation, the more particularly since he again joins Drummond in resisting the standard sort of explanation:  “Milton’s own characterization of this ‘compliance bad’ is. . .notoriously that Adam acted”


Against his better knowledge, not deceav’d

           But fondly overcome with Femal charm. (IX.988-99)


“How can he have better knowledge,” Robinson shrewdly asks, “without knowledge of good and evil? Adam’s fall, pace C.S. Lewis and pace Milton himself, does not come to the reader as a Blakean clinging to the garden of love, as all for love or the world well lost, or any such sentimentality.... Adam tells the exact truth when he bases his determination to stay with Eve on ‘the link of Nature’.” All this is well said, and I add only in further confirmation that Milton himself also resists the Narrator’s foolishness about “fondly overcome with Femal charm” when, in a more dispassionate mood and at the behest of his printer to head up each book with a prose “Argument,” he supplies the much more accurate observation that Adam’s frame of mind at the crucial moment evinces “vehemence of love.”


Even more generous is Robinson’s way of entering into the spirit of Drummond’s commentary and strengthening the point by trying to imagine what Adam would have sounded like, if he had tried to obey God (something many other commentators postulate but never really imagine). The attempt, in Robinsonian blank verse, has an impressively Miltonic ring to it, as it picks up and amplifies the Narrator’s points and addresses Eve to divorce her. And having written the poetry of reproof, Robinson also provides the appropriate commentary: “No, it wouldn’t do. What sort of a man would he have been?” The answer, for Robinson as for Drummond, is clearly that he would have been a worse man, much worse. But if Adam, at this key moment, is shown to be the best he could be, if he is shown as better than anything else he could imaginably be, then he is decidedly not being shown as falling. Nor is this soaring poetry, the most elevated in the poem, at all accurately described, as Robinson attempts to do in his sub-title, as a fall into language. This is language of a sort that a man might hope to rise to.


Having waded in this far with Drummond—“Milton’s poetry triumphs over his masterfully applied doctrine”—Robinson is in deeper than he thinks. He wants to rescue Milton’s great theme: “The story of Adam and Eve, especially from Book IX onwards, does vindicate eternal providence. From the fall, the marriage of Adam and Eve is a true marriage as it could not be before,” he says at one point. And later in the same paragraph, this: “In the adversity of our fallen state, with our knowledge of good and evil, the poet shows us the possibility of a reality of love, both of one another and of God, that was not called for in Eden. With the fall comes the possibility of redemption: Milton does show that, and what more has he undertaken to show?” But there is something like a sleight of hand in this argument. Yes, Milton does show the possibility of redemption, and yes, he does show Adam and Eve in a fallen state, but he also undertook to show the Fall, to show—in a sequential narrative—the passage, the transition from innocence to experience, and that he hasn’t done. Not if you concede the point, as Robinson does, that there’s a flaw in the climax of the poem.


The beginning of the same paragraph from which I’ve been quoting tries to justify Milton through a sort of strategy of containment, but it doesn’t work. “The failures of Paradise Lost, though big and drastic, are local.” How could this be?  A flaw in the climax and yet merely local? It can’t be true, for just as a climax can’t be a climax without being something more than local, so with any flaw therein. Robinson permits himself this finesse, this sleight of hand, because he contrives to think that at the crucial moment Adam has not really made a decision:


We are certainly shown Adam exercising free will. All the same, decision is not quite the right word: he willingly follows his nature, and in that sense does what he is fated to do. Had he remained obedient he would not have been man at all but superhuman or more likely subhuman, however pleasing to the speechifying epic God of Book III. Milton’s poem shows us what mankind is.


The problem with this argument is that in diminishing the moment of decision, it can’t help but diminish the exercise of free will and, along with that, the momentousness and depth of Adam’s choice.


Adam’s choice here might appear to be purely spontaneous, or it may be a product of that intuitive reason that Raphael says (V.488-89) is most often the property of angels but is not exclusively theirs. Adam does demonstrate such intuitive understanding when he is able to name the animals without any prior experience of them. But more than this is involved. Generous and perceptive though Robinson’s treatment of Drummond is, it has to reach still further if it is to rise to the full challenge of Drummond’s argument, for what that shows persuasively is that behind Adam’s “decision” in Book IX is the full force of the long dialogue between God and Adam in Book VIII, in which the latter comes to a full and rational understanding about his nature and about the link of his nature with Eve’s. The decision in Book IX is, emphatically, a complete decision, a decision of the whole man—instinct (that is, nature) supported by reason. If it were anything less than that, Milton would not be showing us what mankind is.


It is a curious, and significant, omission that Robinson’s reprise makes no mention of Drummond’s discussion of Book VIII. Among other things, it would help give the lie to a remark quoted from J.C.F. Littlewood: “What a Paradise Lost we should have had if Milton had been a writer of Lawrence’s powers.”  Robinson says, rightly, that this claim is “frankly absurd.” But one of the reasons it is absurd is that the Milton of Book VIII clearly does have the powers (and more) of a D.H. Lawrence. In the discussion that begins at line 316 and then runs for nearly two hundred lines, Adam intuitively discovers the needs of the body, including its sexual needs, the needs of human life on earth and of the earth, and then explores with wonderful vigour and boldness the ways of bringing these needs to consciousness. His needs rise into language, expressing as Drummond says (echoing Lawrence) the holy ghost within; or as Milton’s God puts it (more powerfully): “Expressing well the spirit within thee free, / My image” (VIII.440-41). As Milton anticipates and supersedes Blake on the relation of innocence and experience, so he anticipates and supersedes Lawrence on the integrity and wholeness of body and mind.


Perhaps the most profound change Milton makes to his narrative is to transfer the perception “it is not good for the man to be alone” from God (as in Gen 2.18) to Adam (as in VIII.355). The result is that Adam and Eve have a responsibility to discover for themselves what is good for them, and it will turn out that the pursuit of the good is a higher goal than mere obedience. One of the wonderful things in Drummond’s discussion of the dialogue in Book VIII is the way it shows how God, himself, approves of Adam’s initiative in the pursuit of that goal, encourages his “presumption,” rewards his disobedience: “with these [the animals] / Find pastime and bear rule” (VIII.374-75) says God, in the imperative mood, “and seemed / So ordering” (376-77), and yet Adam is congratulated for disobeying this order, for pushing ahead to discover his own proper good. He disobeys one command in order to obey what seems to him a higher imperative. There are risks, of course; he could get it wrong, though on this occasion he happens not to. A plausible extension of Drummond’s argument and of Robinson’s critique would seem to be that obedience and disobedience are a set of “contrasts” or “contraries” every bit as necessary to the narrative as are innocence and experience, and that they are built into pre-lapsarian Eden as much as into the post-lapsarian world: they cannot be known, or understood, separately.


It is not part of Drummond’s argument to claim that having failed to depict the Fall as a fall, Milton has therefore left Adam and Eve in a state of perpetual innocence or of Rousseauistic nature. They are fallen humanity, limited, liable to error, but they were that from the very beginning; insofar as they are recognizably human at all they have to be. That’s why Eve struggles with narcissism in Book IV, or they both struggle with her dream in Book V, or they quarrel over a separation and a division of labour in Book IX. What they have to determine, every time, is which impulses should be obeyed (and why) and what instructions or commands need to be obeyed or disobeyed (and why). It may be argued that the Prohibition is a command of a different order entirely (and of course this is pretty much the standard view of the poem), but I doubt that can be truly the case, not in the imaginative universe of Milton’s reconstructed narrative. God may say he wants simple obedience, but since he has endowed his creatures with reason and free will, it’s clear that he wants informed obedience, and it’s further clear from what his indulgence to Adam in Book VIII shows that he is not merely satisfied but even pleased with informed disobedience.


So in one sense the issue comes down to what counts as “informed,” or to use the word that God himself prefers, what counts as “sufficient”? He has made humanity, he says in Book III, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III.99). Are they? Can his word be trusted here? The constituents of “sufficient” are reason and free will, though it perhaps remains an open question whether Adam and Eve are independently sufficient or only sufficient when together. Satan clearly thinks it a great advantage to assail Eve in isolation, and there are many who would fault her determination to be independent (another fall before the fall). But a fundamental principle for Adam (and Milton and God) is the fully engaged reason and will of the individual: “Go, for thy stay, not free, absents thee more” (IX.372). And Eve, for her part, could, perhaps, have obeyed the Prohibition simply because it was the Prohibition, but that too would deny her freedom, and obedience without understanding would absent her more, would have her offering to God (and Adam) an obedience less than fully human.


Instead, in her final meditation before eating the fruit (IX.745-79), she tries her best to reason the matter through, to exercise her full humanity. The Serpent eats and has not died; the Serpent eats and has been elevated into language. She is wrong, of course, but that’s because Satan is a liar and a hypocrite; he has not eaten, he did not learn to speak as a result of having eaten, and he does not dodge death for the reasons he gives but because he is an immortal spirit. But Eve has no way of knowing these things. Nor would Adam had he been there. No one but God could have known—could know. When Satan gets past the sentinel Uriel in Book III (Uriel, one of God’s top seven angels, his “eyes”), he does so by hypocritically pretending to be a wide-eyed tourist eager to pay an admiring visit to the new creation. Uriel, however, is not faulted for not doing his job “For neither man nor angel can discern / Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks / Invisible, except to God alone” (III.682-84). If the Archangel Uriel cannot be faulted, then neither can Eve. How could she be, without better knowledge, and what could that better knowledge be but knowledge of good and evil? And even then, it’s clear that some evil (like some good?) is discernible only by God. In these circumstances, a more than superhuman power is needed to be “sufficient.”


Adam and Eve, as presented to us at the climax of Paradise Lost, exercise the best of the powers and gifts with which they are endowed—powers of reason, of love, and of reason and love combined—and if these aren’t sufficient, that’s not because they were free to fall but because they were already fallen: they already inhabit a world in which innocence can know itself only through experience (including, ultimately, experience of the divine and the satanic). As for the unimaginable superhuman beings living in an unimaginable paradise, who can say whether such gifts and powers would be sufficient (though there is reason to doubt even that), but for the wonderfully imagined world Milton does create—inside Eden and heading away from it—they do show the range and reach of humanity. I will conclude by saying that I do agree with Ian Robinson on a fundamental principle of criticism.


We may as English speakers allow Milton to show us the constitutive myth of the culture without ourselves believing it in anything like the way he expects. But I don’t quite know what it would be to disbelieve Milton. Would we then be able to make any sense at all? I will also say that I do not believe there is any alternative to Milton. Utilitarianism and even less noble creeds, expressed or implicit, have largely replaced Christianity, but where are their myths? None has got such a hold on the language and the culture. I will go as far as to say that actually to accept Milton is a great advantage to the English critic.


Yes, well said, we need Milton, but probably not in anything quite like the way Robinson expects either. And justifying Milton requires that we first figure out whose Milton we mean to justify. For the time being, I’ll stick with Drummond’s.







[1]  “Milton’s Justification of the Ways of God: or, the Fall into Language, An Anti-Drummondist Reprise,” The New Compass 1, (June 2003).

[2]  An Anti-Miltonist Reprise, The Compass, 2-5 (1977-79). Drummond’s Milton articles are included in the collection, In Defence of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others (Edgeways Books/ Brynmill Press, forthcoming, 2004).

[3] This quotation, like the next one, is taken directly from Robinson’s article. All other quotations from Paradise Lost are from Merritt Y. Hughes, ed. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose (Odyssey Press, 1957).






Baxter, John. “Justifying Milton?  A Reply to Ian Robinson.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <http://>