The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Milton’s Justification of the Ways of God

or, The Fall into Language

A Reply to C.Q. Drummond


Ian Robinson




It might be said that civilization can only have its epic poets in advance. ... If you want to see an epic description of a whole culture, you will have to look at the works of its greatest figures, hence at works composed when the end of this culture could only be foreseen, because later on there will be nobody left to describe it.[1]


O felix culpa![2]


One of the best things in the original series of The Compass was the four essays by C. Q. Drummond under the series title of “An Anti-Miltonist Reprise.” When I launched the Edgeways imprint of critical books Drummond got in touch and offered a short book on Bunyan. In reply I asked about the fate of the Milton essays and whether they could be considered for inclusion in the same book. Drummond said yes, and so I reread the series, with admiration for what is now a rare thing, genuine literary criticism. By genuine I mean: addressing the question what significance this poem might have for us now, where it comes in life and in the literature, and answering the question by serious attention to the poem. I did want to argue, though—which is also a good sign: as Leavis said, genuine literary criticism is creative quarrelling. Before I had got my riposte ready the news came of Drummond’s death. Well, discussion is immortal. He has had his say, and the book including the reprint of the Milton essays is well on course, one of its two editors being Professor John Baxter, founding editor of The Compass. So as I can’t say my piece direct to Drummond I offer it instead to Drummond’s readers, and in the hope that this may not be the end of the discussion.


My own context is not quite the same as Drummond’s. At Downing, Leavis made us read Milton. He had carried Paradise Lost around with him throughout the Great War. My sense of my surviving contemporaries is that nevertheless they are inoculated against Milton—have not only never taken him seriously but are hardened in the assumption that there is no need to. In another genuine book my firm has just published, J. C. F. Littlewood says, for instance, “What a Paradise Lost we should have had if Milton had been a writer of Lawrence’s powers,”[3] which, in respect of the relative valuation, I have to say is frankly absurd. I am reporting the most recent stage in the steady decline of the position of Milton since his zenith during the Age of Reason. And so I want to have a go at the Downing constituency as well as those who are close to Drummond’s cast of mind in Canada.


The first surprise Drummond gave me was the reminder of how much he sees in Milton. Drummond argues in support of Waldock’s strictures on Milton’s imaginative and narrative shortcomings: but he also develops Waldock’s account of Adam’s fall to the point of saying that the passage gives us “the greatest love poetry in the language.”[4]


The notion of a great poet with serious flaws makes the whole discussion more interesting than if we were simply to think (as I report my friends doing, especially those nearest to Leavis) that Milton’s shortcomings having after some centuries become painfully obvious, he may be judged to have had his day. The great love poetry of the language, if that is what we find in Paradise Lost, surely ought to guarantee the work as one of our classics, whatever its flaws. I find to my surprise, however, that I want to go a long way further than Drummond.


William Blake concentrated as much as Milton on the sense to be made of the ideas of the loss of innocence and of paradise, and how they might be regained; the upshot was poetry that many find more acceptable than Milton’s, as well as more powerful. In the Introduction to the Songs of Experience Blake tells us to hear the voice of the Bard


                       Whose ears have heard

                         The Holy Word

                       That walk’d among the ancient trees

                       Calling the lapsèd Soul

                       And weeping in the evening dew,

                         That might control

                         The starry pole

And fallen, fallen light renew!


Milton too is trying to call the lapsèd soul and renew fallen, fallen light. The justification I have for asking for some attention to Milton is that I think Milton’s call deeper and clearer than Blake’s, and more necessary for our whole language.


Blake’s best criticism of Milton is not The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and not Milton or anything else in the prophetic books,[5] it is the Songs of Innocence as they balance against, or “contrary” the Songs of Experience to make a whole greater than the parts, as in “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” Within this set of contraries the Experience poems are well known to be on the whole stronger than the Innocence poems, which would apply to “The Tyger.” “The Sick Rose” perhaps depends on a contrast with innocent love, but only as a springboard; and the eternal yearning of “Ah Sunflower” is self-sufficient. But a few of the Innocence poems are better than their Experience counterparts.


We are now so blasé about experience that some of these poems (I write here out of experience of discussing them with students who just can’t take them) are hard sayings. The Innocence “Chimney-Sweeper” is a scandal to the modern mind. How much easier to rest, with Experience in this case, on denunciation—perfectly just, certainly called for—of a social system, now happily far off in time, in which the child is clothed with the clothes of death while his parents are


  gone to praise God & his priest and king

Who make up a heaven of our misery.


But outrage is there too in the Innocence poem—and more deeply, and without stage directions to us to be indignant:


When my mother died I was very young

And my father sold me while yet my tongue

Could scarcely cry “’weep! ’weep! ’weep! ’weep!”

So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep.


The repetition of “’weep!,” as strong as the repeated “Mark” in “London,” yet has no designs on the reader; and if the gaiety of the nursery-rhyme-like movement of “Your chimneys I sweep” is heartrending it is not because Blake is determined as his first objective to pluck at our heartstrings. Pity must surely come into any proper understanding of these lines, and indignation: Are these things done on Albion’s shore? It is pity evoked by the purest statement, of innocence. Sold is simply, innocently terrible. The consequence, “So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep” ought, one feels, like the lamb misused, to breed public strife, and yet it is not a denunciation, but an impersonal pointing in a direction that leads later in the poem not to indignation but redemption.


Blake, a generation older than Wordsworth and Coleridge, did not change his mind about the French Revolution. What is so hard for us to grasp, in a still socialist age, is that the wonder of innocence in this and a few other poems is not directly political at all. The chimney sweeper’s vision that follows is not ironical. Tom Dacre,[6] “who cried when his head,/That curl’d like a lamb’s back, was shear’d,” has a vision of the thousands of sleepers unlocked by an angel from their coffins of black who


  down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,

And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.


Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,

They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;

And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy

He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.


Joy! But there is no atom of irony here, no hint that the Angel may be on the side of the exploiters; the closing moral (what else to call it?) comes with absolute innocence:


Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;

So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.


That vision of Innocence is wonderful; it is in not being ironic that this is so poignant. We have to overcome something in our world to take what Blake shows as more than a pathetic story of dream-compensation.


In the two “Holy Thursday” poems, again, Experience speaks so much more directly to our sense of what calls for indignation and reform (“And so many children poor?/It is a land of poverty!”)—which again is perfectly just and true—that we may again miss the deeper Innocence and not notice it as a more visionary account of the very same occasion. In comparison the Experience poem is overstated:


  And the sun does never shine,

It is eternal winter there.


Never? In Paradise Lost hope never comes, that comes to all, only in Hell. The emphasis on and is also just a little bullying—unlike the Innocence poem, where the purity of heart is so bold that Blake has no need of insistence.[7]


Blake’s contrasting of innocence and experience[8] avoids the difficulty Milton so boldly committed himself to, the difficulty of defining these contrasts by way of telling a story with a line leading from the one state to the other. This might in itself seem to show Blake, the more intelligent handler of a poetic problem, as also the man of deeper understanding. My only justification for saying anything on the subject is that I do not think it does.


It is when his masterfulness carries the poet into doing what he should have seen can’t be done that Milton’s poem breaks down—at the places that have always been recognized as weak. Milton was not the only writer to have got into trouble trying to depict heaven, and the trouble is not altogether ascribable to a particular moment of the Renaissance/Reformation, though as Broadbent showed,[9] that has something to do with it. In Pearl, that splendid medieval poem, the vision of the new Jerusalem granted to the dreamer as a reward for his obedience is an anti-climax which he has to excuse by ascribing to the Apostle John. The Revelation of St John itself has moments that need apology. The last two chapters achieve an ecstasy that is amazing in simple NT Greek, but the precious stones remain a list of objects of this world not the next; and the cubic Holy City is not actually imaginable. I made some relevant comments on Dante long ago, elsewhere. Trying to depict heaven the other great Puritan writer, Bunyan, has a moment of weakness at the end of the first part of Pilgrim’s Progress, which he rectifies in the second by concentrating on the crossing of the dark river rather than on what is found on the other side.[10] And Bunyan’s reworking of the Paradise Lost story in The Holy War is worse than Milton.[11] But the epic ambition did inevitably sharpen Milton’s difficulty, by making the first two persons of the Trinity into the kind of character you expect to find in the Olympian pantheon, talking to each other and to the angels assembled in a kind of parliament. Broadbent is good both on the history of the ambition before and after Milton and on the various failures it produced.


These are, of course, not excuses. The seventeenth-century poets, and Bunyan, should have seen they were in a cul-de-sac and tried some other way. In any understandable Christian terms, the rebellious angels fall by the act of the alienation of their wills from God: if they cease to love God that in itself removes them from God. This is a point nicely clear for instance in that earlier enactment of the Christian way, the York Plays. There, as soon as Lucifer has expressed his pride he finds himself falling. Going the other way Milton is pressing a difficult analogy in the wrong direction. If Milton had allowed himself to see this, which is obvious enough, there couldn’t have been those absurd uprootings of trees, invention of gunpowder &c. to keep an actual battle going three days—permitted, God has to explain to save the orthodoxy of his omnipotence, in order to glorify the Eternal Son.


It was a related and equally obvious mistake to make God speak. (There was the Homeric precedent, but the gods are a problem in the Iliad too. When they appear to the heroes they can be divine, but what to do with the Olympian squabbles? The best translator into English I know, W. H. D. Rouse, thought that these scenes were all broadly comic and translated accordingly. Presumably Milton did not intend the Father to be comic.) In particular, it was a mistake to make him foretell the fall of Adam and then lose his temper, exculpating himself and blaming Adam in a way that cannot but make the reader think that God has something to hide. Every time Richard Nixon went on the television to explain that he was quite innocent in the poor little Watergate affair he made things worse, and anybody who trusted him before must have been quite sure afterwards that he did it himself. Milton’s God is like the proverbial father of the (in his view) rebellious teenage son: “He had everything he wanted, and look how he treats me now, the ungrateful!” Milton had no sense of his own fallibility: there is not enough in Paradise Lost of “’Tis mystery all, th’Immortal dies/Who can explore his strange design?” John Milton can, too easily. A republican ought to be in difficulty with a religion that is trying to bring in the kingdom of God.[12] How can the King of Kings to be shown by a republican to be no despot? The stupidity in Milton and Bunyan is that they seem not to have asked themselves the question.


Milton’s insoluble artistic problem, not recognized by himself at all, is how to unpack Paradise Lost into a sequence of events. As Schopenhauer put it: “There is no truer idea in Judaism than this [of the Fall], although it transfers to the course of existence what must be represented as its foundation and antecedent.”[13] The difficulty Milton involves himself in, telling the fall as a long dramatized story, is in trying to imagine a whole world of innocence, fully human but without the knowledge of good and evil and without the prospect of death. Where is humanity, where is language, if the voices are not heard of good, evil, death? Try and imagine what would be left of that wonderful evocation of humanity and the divine, the Book of Psalms! At that point I have to give up—but of course Milton didn’t. He depicted, flat out, head on, the state of unfallen man in Eden.


T. S. Eliot justly objects to the unrealization of the speeches Adam and Eve make to each other in the Garden in Book IV. Shakespeare did actually look at the world; Milton, who, as Eliot unkindly reminds us, could not look at the world when he was writing Paradise Lost, makes Eden general in a way that cannot but be insipid. Whether or not Milton would have agreed, this shows an understanding of the necessary state of Eden, without the knowledge of good and evil. It must have been a bit dull, at least for Adam and Eve, if not for the animals. I am not even sure that the elephant would have been happy for long amusing them with his lithe proboscis.


The poem is immediately lifted when Satan sees the pair. 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. Here are the last few lines about the animals, followed by the bursting in of Satan’s view of the loving human pair:


Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards

Gambold before them, th’ unwieldy Elephant

To make them mirth us’d all his might, and wreathd

His Lithe Proboscis; close the Serpent sly

Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine

His breaded train, and of his fatal guile

Gave proof unheeded; others on the grass

Coucht, and now fild with pasture gazing sat,

Or Bedward ruminating; for the Sun

Declin’d was hasting now with prone carreer

To th’ Ocean Iles, and in th’ ascending Scale

Of Heav’n the Starrs that usher Evening rose:

When Satan still in gaze, as first he stood,

Scarce thus at length faild speech recoverd sad.

                                   O Hell! what doe mine eyes with grief behold,

Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t

Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,

Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright

Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue

With wonder, and could love, so lively shines

In them Divine resemblance, and such grace

The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.

Ah gentle pair, yee little think how nigh

Your change approaches, when all these delights

Will vanish and deliver ye to woe …. (IV.344-68)[14]


Several things are happening there more complex than Milton is sometimes allowed to be. Satan’s enviousness (old sense) is apparent, but also his deep appreciation. Milton puts in the Argument, “his wonder at thir excellent form and happy state, but with resolution to work thir fall”—and it takes a poet to create wonder. Satan is Macbeth-like in seeing the good more deeply than the good see it themselves; in fact he is so to speak reverse-tempted—to repent. For his reasons for admiring the beauty of Adam and Eve are good and true. If he could love them for their divine resemblance he would bless them unawares, like the Ancient Mariner, and be relieved of the burden of his sin like Bunyan’s Christian at the foot of the cross. Instead, like Macbeth fatally determined, he goes into a sardonic contemplation of them from the point of view of evil. This gets even worse when he sees their sexual love for one another (490 ff.).


To be appreciated the innocence of the garden has to be seen by an eye not innocent. Paradise can only be truly known as lost; which is part of the myth: tous les vrais paradis, ce sont les paradis perdus.


What Milton does with Satan’s sight of Innocence is like what Blake does with the clash of contraries in the Songs: the genuineness in both cases is the poet’s vision of paradisal incorruptibility. The vision is not itself innocent. It is only to the experiened that innocence is a vision; to see and wonder at innocence presupposes a fall, even without the explicit Experience poetry. The Innocence “Nurse’s Song” is seen from the point of view of experience, whereas the Experience Nurse is just evil. Marvell’s prospect of Little T.C. (Marvell who was almost as preoccupied with innocence and experience as Blake or Milton), has to be from the poet’s experienced point of view. Little T.C. could not herself invite us to


See with what simplicity

This Nimph begins her golden daies!


She has no conception of herself as a nymph beginning her golden days. As Alice discovers, the garden, Eliot’s “first world,” is only to be seen when we are too big to enter.


All those celebrations of the paradisal state of childhood from Traherne to Edward Thomas, in which the child is seen as having a visionary grasp of the reality of the beauty of the world, are looking back from adulthood. The last-named has a valuable meditation on the theme, set off by thinking of Traherne. “Many are the scenes thus to be recalled without spot or stain,” he says[15]—but only by the spotted and stained. Of a May morning:


On such a dawn the very spirit bathes in the dew and nuzzles into the fragrance with delight; but it is no sooner left behind with May than it has developed within me into an hour and a scene of utmost grace and bliss, save that I am in it myself.[16]


We can’t know that we are innocent if the knowledge of good and evil is itself the loss of innocence. Milton himself worked this out:


It was called the tree of knowledge of good and evil because of what happened afterwards: for since it was tasted, not only do we know evil, but also we do not even know good except through evil.[17]


and in the Areopagitica:


It was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill.[18]


But he could not see the necessary consequences for his poem.


Despite the gross and deep flaw of the attempt at sequential narrative, though, Milton treats innocence and experience, I have to say, more deeply than Blake, and is free from an occasional sentimentality in Blake about what is possible to us in this fallen world. Milton is certainly not of the Devil’s party with or without knowing it, but the devil’s-eye view is here his way of realizing innocent beauty. The beauty is real, not a fiction of Satan’s, but only to be perceived by a fallen eye.


Something similar happens with the great authorial celebration of marriage later in the Book:


Here Love his golden shafts imploies, here lights

His constant Lamp, and waves his purple wings,

                       Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile

                       Of Harlots, loveless, joyless, unindeard,

                       Casual fruition, nor in Court Amours

                       Mixt Dance, or wanton Mask, or Midnight Bal,

                       Or Serenate, which the starv’d Lover sings

                       To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain. (IV.763-70)


With the last two lines Milton masterfully disposes to his own satisfaction of about five hundred years of European love poetry, and anyone who dared could dispute with him about that. My point is just that he has to create the splendours of marriage, marriage as divinely appointed, in terms impossible to the life of Eden. He has to bring in the Blakean contrast. Wedded love is not in the bought smiles &c. What chance has Adam of knowing of harlots, court amours, daungere? The wonder of the marriage is seen not by Adam’s innocent eye but by the experienced eye of the poet.


This may be a clue to an element of trinitarian orthodoxy in the Arian-inclined Milton. I am not the first reader to have wondered why the Third Person of the Trinity takes no part in the conversations between the Eternal Father and the Eternal Son and indeed no part in the action at all. But the Holy Spirit is mentioned right at the beginning, and is there in the poet’s disposition as true judgement; in this case even the true seeing of Satan is subordinated to the whole narrative.


Nothing in Book IV, though, is as good as much of Book IX onwards. Before I re-read the poem recently I had misremembered some phrases about Satan’s perception of Eden as by Keats, though Milton even mentions sewers:


As one who long in populous City pent,

                       Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Aire,

                       Forth issuing on a Summers Morn to breathe

                       Among the pleasant Villages and Farmes

                       Adjoynd, from each thing met conceaves delight,

                       The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine. (IX.445-50)


This is Satan’s experience. Once more, before Satan begins his temptation, he is reverse-tempted, prompted by Eve’s innocent beauty to repent:


Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold

                       This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of Eve

                       Thus earlie, thus alone; her Heav’nly forme

                       Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,

                       Her graceful Innocence, her every Aire

                       Of gesture or lest action overawd

                       His Malice, and with rapine sweet bereav’d

                       His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought .... (IX.455-62)


Not, alas! for long. What is said, sometimes justly, about Milton’s failure to realize, doesn’t apply; and the realization is right on the spiritual target. Satan cannot but recognize again that the kala and the agatha go together in Eve.


Milton’s poetry triumphs over his masterfully applied doctrine—about that I heartily agree with Drummond, though I draw a different conclusion. It could not have done so had not Milton been a poet in the most ordinary sense of having a great creative gift with language. And he is at his best when he most needs to be, at the moment of the fall itself.


Thus Eve with Countnance blithe her storie told;

                       But in her Cheek distemper flushing glowd.

                       On th’ other side, Adam, soon as he heard

                       The fatal Trespass done by Eve, amaz’d,

                       Astonied stood and Blank, while horror chill

                       Ran through his veins, and all his joynts relax’d;

                       From his slack hand the Garland wreath’d for Eve

                       Down drop’d, and all the faded Roses shed:

                       Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length

                       First to himself he inward silence broke.

                       O fairest of Creation, last and best

                       Of all Gods Works, Creature in whom excell’d

                       Whatever can to sight or thought be formd,

                       Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet!

                       How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost,

                       Defac’t, deflourd, and now to Death devote?

                       Rather how hast thou yeelded to transgress

                       The strict forbiddance, how to violate

                       The sacred Fruit forbidd’n! som cursed fraud

                       Of Enemie hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown,

                       And mee with thee hath ruind, for with thee

                       Certain my resolution is to Die;

                       How can I live without thee, how forgoe

                       Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly joyn’d,

                       To live again in these wilde Woods forlorn?

                       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. (IX.886-916)


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.


Milton’s own characterization of this “compliance bad” is, however, notoriously, that Adam acted


Against his better knowledge, not deceav’d

                       But fondly overcome with Femal charm. (IX.988-89)


How can he have better knowledge 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. It is not the foolish king Edward VIII giving up a throne for an American divorcee. Adam tells the exact truth when he bases his determination to stay with Eve on “the link of Nature.”


Milton’s comment is untrue to his poem. Try the question what Adam would have been like had he decided to obey God.


To whom thus Adam firm resolvd began:

                       Fare ill then, fond deluded Wife, whom once

                       I lov’d as my Companion, in these Groves

                       So pleasant, so more pleasant by thee charm’d!

                       For now my Makers will bids cast thee off

                       Whom from my inmost Heart nought but such Will

                       Could ever sunder. Yet be prais’d and blest

                       He who has will’d it thus; his Will be done;

                       Which may perchance, pitying my State forlorn

                       Create in his good time another Eve

                       More perdurable in these happy Haunts.

                       Thus Adam, breathing from his heart a sigh. [IX.1190-1201]


No, it wouldn’t do. What sort of a man would he have been? As Drummond convincingly puts it, “Adam falls through love, not gregariousness as E. M. W. Tillyard said, not through uxoriousness as C. S. Lewis thought, not through sensuality as John Milton thought—but through love as human beings know it at its best ….”[19] He resolves to follow her not because of his fondness (modern sense) but because he can do no other. By this I don’t mean anything brought inevitably upon them in a Euripidean world of fate and necessity; we are certainly shown Adam exercising freewill. All the same, decision is not quite the word: he willingly follows his nature, and in that sense does what he is fated to do. Had he remained obedient he would have been not 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.


Spinoza held that the Fall stands for the necessary and beneficial attainment of adult self-knowledge.[20] Why is it a fall, then? If the fall constitutes human nature, if it is felix culpa, the question has to arise why it was an evil requiring the death of God to rectify. Neither Adam nor Eve is evil in the fall in the sense of committing any of the traditional deadly sins, with the possible exception of pride in one particular, and Milton is most unconvincing when in the Christian Doctrine he tries to pin all manner of evil on them.[21]


Milton’s is a flaw, though, in a creation as deep as Blake’s. Blake’s one outright failure in the Songs is “The Garden of Love,” a maudlin personal wail in which the essential vision of the series is lost. Of course “Thou shalt not” is written over the door of the garden of love; if it were not so the love would not be human love but the paradisal innocence of Adam and Eve unable to see itself as such. Blake’s effort at free love comes out as mere silliness. The last line, the contradiction (not contrary) of Tom Dacre’s vision, cannot but be funny:


And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

                       And binding with briars my joys & desires.


My joys and desires—how can one not give the line the comic, personally complaining emphasis? Poor William Blake, deprived of his joys & desires! But such may be the human lot. Only in paradisal innocence can creatures always follow their desires without offending conscience. I remember that Blake is the fountainhead in English of the doctrine that the satisfaction of desire is the moral imperative, but that unlike Milton he was luckily inconsistent enough to be happily married. It is Milton who shows marriage for what it can be in our fallen world.


The failures of Paradise Lost, though big and drastic, are local. 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. The firstfruits are concupiscence, which may well appear as a degradation of the beautiful creatures Satan saw in Book IV and again so recently. Then after Adam has made his great sacrifice for Eve they fall to upbraidings and recriminations—as people do: it certainly isn’t perfection they fall into. But then again they are contrite, ready to forgive, even manage to show forbearance. Without these possibilities the love of man and woman is not itself: they are part of its range. 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?


The first law of literary criticism is to begin with what is living in a work of art. The claim I have to make for Milton, and my point of disagreement with Drummond, is that what is living in Paradise Lost, distinguishable from what is only masterful and willed, does in itself fulfil Milton’s stated intention to


  assert Eternal Providence,

And justifie the wayes of God to men.[22]


I am always surprised, going back to Paradise Lost, how often and how confidently Milton recurs to the statement of his theme as justifying Providence. Wherever did Blake get that idea that Milton is of the Devil’s party without knowing it? Satan is always perfectly Satanic and Milton is not of the party of evil. He is clear all the way through about his redemptive theme: good out of evil. Milton comments that Satan is left at large to his own dark designs,


That with reiterated crimes he might

                       Heap on himself damnation, while he sought

                       Evil to others, and enrag’d might see

                       How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth

                       Infinite goodness.... (I.213-17)




But thir spite still serves

                       His glory to augment (II.385-86)


says Milton, truly to the story.


The best sign is that the poem improves as it goes on. It would not be quite true to say that Milton doesn’t put a foot wrong from Book IX onwards; there is a characteristic flaw about the sons of God and the daughters of men, and some self-indulgent versified geography. Milton does give us in the closing books wonderful pictures of what life must be like—of marriage, warts and all, of public life, of old age, diseases, deaths, of the mixtures we do find in the world—in the aspect of the hope of redemption and with the prospect of judgement. Adam’s love for Eve at the moment of the fall is already self-sacrificial, but he cannot rescue himself from the consequences of the fall. Only redemptive love can do that; but redemptive love does make it the fortunate fall.[23]


Satan in the form of the serpent tells lies when he says he has learned to talk by eating the forbidden fruit; but as a myth of the origin of language what he says is convincing. I don’t just mean to side with the theory that language originated not in making factual propositions but in jokes and deception. What happens to Adam and Eve is that by the assertion of their will that initially separates them from God they complete their language and fall into humanity. Their new lust and bickering gives them a true sight of innocence which, in turn, means that they are miserable, i.e. capable of receiving mercy. They are also capable of just judgement.


            Such is the commentary but what does the work is the poetry. Could there be any other way for a poet to justify the ways of God to men?


O goodness infinite, goodness immense!

                       That all this good of evil shall produce,

                       And evil turn to good; more wonderful

                       Then that by which creation first brought forth

                       Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,

                       Whether I should repent me now of sin

                       By mee done and occasiond, or rejoyce

                       Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,

                       To God more glory, more goodwill to Men

                       From God, and over wrauth grace shall abound. (XII.469-78)


It is very pleasing that Milton should use the same phrase here as the other religious genius of that moment of reaction against the rule of the saints, in the title of his greatest work. It is grace abounding to the chief of sinners that Milton displays. When Adam and Eve leave paradise, right at the end,


Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;

                       The world was all before them, where to choose

                       Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:

                       They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow

                       Through Eden took thir solitarie way. (XII.645-49)


Such is life! That is the claim to be made for the necessity of Milton.


The strength of a myth is not in tying up ends, but in pointing a finger towards what men live by. Paradise Lost is the version for England of the myth Christendom lives by, if it lives by anything. This too is what Milton intended.


I applied myself ... to fix all the industry and art I could unite to the adorning of my native tongue; not to make verbal curiosities the end, (that were a toilsome vanity,) but to be an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things among mine own citizens thoughout this island in the mother dialect. That what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I, in my proportion, with this over and above of being a Christian, might do for mine ....[24]


Milton’s view of Shakespeare as warbling native wood-notes wild misled generations of romantic critics, but that Milton’s poetry is the stylistic opposite of Shakespeare’s is an opinion not easy to reconcile with the second book of Paradise Lost. Whether it is directly influenced by the debate between Troilus and Hector in Troilus and Cressida I will not speculate, but both dramatists (for Milton is obviously a dramatist here) have a comparable grasp of the clash of character that makes a real debate. The Miltonic clench that makes so much in Paradise Lost go wrong also makes possible, so late in the day, a Shakespearean achievement quite unlike anything Shakespeare himself could conceivably have attempted, the rendering into poetry, the making available to the imagination, of the religious myth of this language.


The need for art, says Collingwood, is that “No community altogether knows its own heart, and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death.”[25] The most important function of art, in Tolstoy’s phrase, is to show us what men live by. Paradise Lost is the English epic because it shows the heart.


There is indeed something wrong with Paradise Lost. Something carries over from the controversial prose works which Drummond admires (mistakenly I think). But why is Milton, alone of the great English poets, rebuked so severely for flaws and imperfections? Paradise Lost does raise in an extreme form the question of the difference between perfection and achieved splendour.[26] Milton’s flaws are not bad writing as Shakespeare is often bad (loose and feeble) and not a split in two like George Eliot: but there is a kind of split between Milton the dramatic poet and Milton the bossy controversialist of towering will. Paradise Lost is an extreme case of not trusting the artist at least in the sense of not trusting him always to know how to go about achieving his ends. On the other hand is it any more extreme a case than the profoundly moral Dombey and Son, which collapses into unreality every time it brings in the heroine, the sign being outbreaks of blank verse? Yet Dombey is a profound moral classic for all that. In both flawed works of art, trust the tale and you get to what the teller did intend.


Here I have to say that criticism, including the classic criticism of Leavis, has badly let us down. “There are only a few persons at present who perceive that in substance the account which was given in the seventeenth century of the relation between man and God is immortal and worthy of epic treatment.”[27] Milton is ostensibly the subject of the most important debate in literary criticism of the twentieth century. Neither side showed as much interest in the poetry as would become them, and that is the most important historical fact. Leavis said this of Eliot, but it must be said of Leavis too.


From Johnson down to T. S. Eliot we see a progressive loss of Milton even by those who should have seen what it was that they were losing. The defenders didn’t do Milton the service they intended. C. S. Lewis was well-intentioned but not sensitive enough about the poetry, ditto Charles Williams.


The story of Johnson’s struggles with Shakespeare is familiar to students. It went against his Augustan grain to see in Shakespeare the great genius of the language. Shakespeare at his most poetic is often indecorous; reading the blanket of the dark Johnson could scarce check his risibility. But he did it and, superbly honest man, overcame the whole set of his mind at least to the extent of making and enforcing that large recognition.


That Johnson had no trouble with Milton is even more surprising, for to admire Milton he had to overcome what amounted to personal dislike as well as political and religious disapproval. The Age of Reason took the immoderate puritan to its heart along with the wild untutor’d phoenix. Neither of them fitted the Augustan sensibility any more than Cranmer did, then still used in all the churches in England. But Johnson accepted Paradise Lost and for the right reasons.


Paradise Lost, says Johnson, is literally of general interest for “We all, indeed, feel the effects of Adam’s disobedience; we all sin like Adam, and like him must bewail our offences ... in the Redemption of mankind we hope to be included....” This makes it for Johnson our epic. “This Milton has undertaken, and performed with pregnancy and vigour of mind peculiar to himself.” There is a great passage about what a real poet does with received truths: “History must supply the writer with the rudiments of narration, which he must improve and exalt by a nobler art, must animate by dramatick energy.”


Johnson has not, of course, lost his critical judgement in admiration. His objections to the flaws in Paradise Lost have been followed ever since. “Another inconvenience of Milton’s design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described, the agency of spirits.” So they can be overwhelmed by mountains, incumbered by armour: Satan is sometimes spirit and sometimes matter. Of the war in heaven: “The confusion of spirit and matter which pervades the whole narration of the war in heaven fills it with incongruity: and the book, in which it is related, is, I believe, the favourite of children, and gradually neglected as knowledge is increased.” And the life of Eden cannot be imagined as human, “The plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners,” and Johnson remarks the poem’s “want of human interest ... none ever wished it longer than it was.” This does make it unShakespearean. But “What Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages, which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish in some degree the honour of our country?”


I have quoted Johnson on Milton from Arnold’s selection of the Lives of the Poets, the Introduction to which is just about the best characterization of the eighteenth-century sensibility I know, complete with a very intelligent perception of the role played in it by prose. Arnold passes for an admirer of Milton and includes a line from Milton as a touchstone of high seriousness in English verse. But for Arnold, Milton’s providential theology has gone altogether, as it must if Arnold is to sustain his own thesis of poetry replacing dogma. Arnold’s move is to assert that Milton cannot be taken seriously on his own terms as the narrator of Christian truth. What is left for Arnold is the great verse.


Ruskin lost his faith in an unusual style, but as usual the loss took Paradise Lost with it. After rightly objecting to the War in Heaven as “evidently unbelievable to [Milton] himself” he says,


The rest of his poem is a picturesque drama, in which every artifice of invention is visibly and consciously employed; not a single fact being for an instant conceived as tenable by any living faith.[28]


Then Leavis goes the whole hog and, concurring with Arnold—going, indeed, as far as being very rude about Milton’s qualifications for writing a theological or philosophical poem—turns quite crudely on his verse too. Well, it’s prejudice still. Leavis, as Ricks established, is wrong about the verse: the reason that so sensitive a critic got the verse wrong was that he couldn’t take the subject. Relying on a belief in “life” he could not go so far towards recognizing sin and mercy. Eliot too misjudged the verse and missed the myth, and with less excuse, because Eliot was a Christian. Leavis is quite right to note that Eliot never showed much interest in Milton—Eliot’s interests being firstly governed by what was of use to him as a poet for whom epic style was not an option. It seems to me nevertheless the central defect in Eliot’s career as a critic that he elevated Dante above Chaucer and Milton.[29]


I am therefore happy to concur for once with C. S. Lewis, except that I think his notion of myth is too restricted:


Paradise Lost records a real, irreversible, unrepeatable process in the history of the universe; and even for those who do not believe this, it embodies (in what for them is mythical form) the great change in every individual soul from happy dependence to miserable self-assertion and thence either, as in Satan, to final isolation, or, as in Adam, to reconcilement and a different happiness.[30]


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 on the culture. I will go as far as to say that actually to accept Milton is a great advantage for the English critic.


In my latter years of university work I was surprised every year at how little difficulty my students have in understanding Milton. It is just not true that he has been superseded by the modern world.


Leavis was kicking against the pricks. Paradise Lost seized the eighteenth century by a kind of critical inspiration much like the one that seized Handel’s Messiah. Handel, a very prolific composer of genius, tried hard as a composer-impresario of opera. The London public would not respond and after “papering the house” for some seasons and going bankrupt Handel tried the new form of oratorio. This made slow progress.


Two hundred years later Handel’s operas were rarely heard (an omission we have done something to rectify, I am glad to say) but Messiah was performed by amateur choirs with professional SATB principals up and down the land. At that very unpropitious mid-Eighteenth-Century moment, with the age of reason securely established, a hundred years after the rule of the saints, Messiah did more than catch the public fancy. It became the musical equivalent (there being no English liturgical equivalent of the German cantata cycles) of Paradise Lost, singing, four hundred years after the Corpus Christi plays, the myth of our covenant with God.


I am not saying that the art of Messiah does not deserve its place: on the contrary, it could only occupy that place on musical merit, and the work has something of Bach’s grammaticality. Handel made the grammar of music subserve the English myth of salvation, and that is why the work caught the nation’s imagination of the Age of Reason and held it into the age of democracy.


The universal reading of Homer went far towards constituting the Hellenistic world as a coherent entity. For a Christian culture the Bible has a place for which there was no equivalent in the creedless classical Greece. Shakespeare and the Bible together are mutatis mutandis more like the English Homer: but to them we still have to add Paradise Lost. The next step on the path of Eliot’s criticism of Arnold[30] would be to see that after all Milton is the great mythological poet of the English-speaking world. An epic celebrates what men live by. Most nations (to appropriate Pope) have no character at all. If England has a character Paradise Lost is part of it.




Appendix: a particular disagreement


Drummond continues a long-running controversy about some lines spoken by Moloch, about which I think Ricks is right and Drummond wrong. The passage is this:


My sentence is for open Warr: Of Wiles

                       More unexpert, I boast not: them let those

                       Contrive who need, or when they need, not now.

                       For while they sit contriving, shall the rest,

                       Millions that stand in Arms, and longing wait

                       The Signal to ascend, sit lingring here

                       Heav’ns fugitives ...? (II.51-57)


Both Eliot and Leavis objected to what they thought the unrealization of this passage. “It might, of course, be objected [in Drummond’s report of Ricks’s report of Eliot] that ‘millions that stand in arms could not at the same time sit lingring’.”[32] Drummond defends Leavis: “We pass over these matters, ‘swept along by the grand majestic flow, the Miltonic music, the epic style’” (35) against Ricks’s defence of Milton that the “shall” introduces a future which means that they need not be simultaneously sitting and standing. Drummond counter-argues, convincingly, that shall “has the force of ‘must’.” But I don’t think his conclusion follows. Even if we do take stand as physical posture, there is still plainly continuation of time. While the endless debate goes on, those who are now eagerly standing will tire and sit down.


In any case “stand in arms” is surely part of the seventeenth-century terminology about what we still call standing armies, then much feared in England, which had never had one. Soldiers in a standing army do sit sometimes. In Pandemonium the millions that stand in arms are presumably sitting in the assembly. To stand in arms is just to be in a state of military readiness, not necessarily in a standing position. Cf. “to stand trial” when the accused may sometimes be allowed to sit. A related sense: N.E.D. 10 cites Milton’s contemporary Evelyn: “King James’s army would not stand,” i.e. hold their ground.


I agree, however, that the passage makes a contrast of “stand” and “sit.” I think it an effective one. Stand is the right verb, even if not meant literally. (Cf. “They also serve, who only stand and wait.”) The stand/sit contrast is certainly part of Moloch’s sarcasm. I take the contrast to be witty. If it had been found in Donne or Shakespeare there might even have been praise. It’s good dramatic writing! How came Leavis, I want to protest, Leavis who knew Milton so well, Leavis who was so alert a reader, to miss the strong characterization and dramatic force of this speech? and how came Drummond, that sensitive and honest critic, to be convinced by his anti-Miltonist argument rather than by this poetry?







[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch, Oxford, 1980, p. 9e.

[2] O certe necessarium Ade peccatum et nostrum; quod Christi morte deletum est. O felix culpa, que talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem.” Canticle Exultet, Holy Saturday blessing of paschal candle, Sarum missal; cited W. W. Skeat, Piers Plowman, Oxford, 1886, II.98. Skeat also refers to the works of Wyclif, ed. Arnold, I.321.

[3] J. C. F. Littlewood, Tradition and Renewal, Denton, 2002, p. 179.

[4] C. Q. Drummond, “An Anti-Miltonist Reprise IV,” The Compass 5 (1979), p. 19.

[5] The Book of Thel, for instance, presents innocence terrified which, though beautiful, is not paradise lost.

[6] I heard Mr. George Donaldson point out in a lecture that Tom’s surname is (like Dickens’s Tattycoram) that of an orphanage, suggesting that Tom has been sold twice, once to the orphanage then sold on by the orphanage to the sweep.

[7] Cf. “I was more touched by this innocent and reverent music than by any I ever heard in my life.”—Joseph Haydn on the St. Paul’s Holy Thursday service, quoted in Dyneley Hussey, “Joseph Haydn,” The Music Masters ed. A. L. Bacharach, 1948, repr. 1957, I, p. 220.

[8] My contrasts rather than Blake’s own contraries or Coleridge’s opposites is meant to suggest the Saussurean use in linguistics, where linguistic features have their place contrastively. So innocence depends for its sense on the contrast with experience.

[9] J. B. Broadbent, Some Graver Subject, 1960.

[10] Drummond makes the point in his Bunyan essay, forthcoming.

[11] Works ed. George Offor, 1857, III p. 259a: Bunyan’s Adam eats the fruit but Bunyan hasn’t mentioned the prohibition which Diabolus now appeals to! Bunyan gives conversations in heaven too, even less plausibly than Milton.

[12] Cf., again, Bunyan in The Holy War. Shaddai’s claims are just about the same as King Charles I’s. Why couldn’t they both connect?

[13] Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Christian System,” Religion: A Dialogue and Other Essays, trans. T. Bailey Saunders, third ed., 1891, p. 115.

[14] Milton’s poetry is quoted from the excellent edition of H. C. Beeching, Oxford, 1900.

[15] The South Country, Introds. Helen Thomas and R. George Thomas, repr. 1993, p. 99.

[16] Ibid., my italics.

[17] The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. VI, New Haven, 1973; Christian Doctrine, trans. John Carey, into unMiltonic English, p. 352.

[18] Areopagitica, ed. Edward Arber, 1868, p. 45.

[19] The Compass 5 (1979), p. 19.

[20] Broadbent, op. cit., p. 253.

[21] “For what fault is there which man did not commit in committing this sin? He was to be condemned both for trusting Satan and for not trusting God; he was faithless, ungrateful, disobedient, greedy, uxorious; she, negligent of her husband’s welfare; both of them committed theft, robbery with violence, murder against their children (i.e., the whole human race); each was sacrilegious and deceitful, cunningly aspiring to divinity although thoroughly unworthy of it, proud and arrogant” (pp. 383–4). It is surely far-fetched to accuse Adam and Eve of the murder of children not yet conceived and who, if God is to be trusted, in the simplest understanding of his threat of death, will never be conceived. (Paradise Lost IV. 427).

[22] Paradise Lost I.24–5.

[23] Milton is sometimes accused of being a predestinarian in a sense that would deny freewill to Adam and Eve. He actually believed (in the Christian Doctrine as well as Paradise Lost) in predestination to election: “by which GOD, BEFORE THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE WORLD WERE LAID, HAD MERCY ON THE HUMAN RACE .... Whenever the subject is mentioned in scripture, specific reference is made only to election ....” (Christian Doctrine, ed. cit., p. 168).

[24] The Reason of Church Government, 1641; Selected Prose Writings of John Milton, ed. Ernest Myers, 1884, pp. 25–26.

[25] The Principles of Art, Oxford, 1938; repr. 1965, p. 336.

[26] I am thinking of Lawrence’s phrase “Give me a little splendour and I will leave perfection to the small fry.”

[27] Mark Rutherford, Pages from a Journal, Oxford, 1910, pp. 110–111.

[28] Sesame and Lilies as cited by Mark Rutherford, Pages from a Journal, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1910, p. 111.

[29] On Dante cf. a chapter in my Chaucer and the English Tradition.

[30] A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 133.

[31] Cf. my book The English Prophets, Denton, 2001.

[32] Drummond The Compass 2 (1977), p. 34.






Robinson, Ian. “Milton’s Justification of the Ways of God or, The Fall into Language: A Reply to C. Q. Drummond.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 1 (June 2003) <>