"Paradise Lost" By John Milton: Book Review
In this review, I hope to put forward two different approaches to interpreting Milton’s Paradise Lost. I will be exploring Archie Burnett’s article ‘Sense Variously Drawn Own’ published in 2003 which examines the relation between Lineation, syntax, and meaning in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I will also be exploring a feminist critical analysis of Milton’s depiction of Eve as an alternative interpretation of the text. In my exploration of Eve, I will draw upon ideas from feminist critics, like Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Susanne Wood, as well as Edward S. LeComte.
Archie Burnett in his article develops a structural analysis using numerous critics of Milton to analyze his verse style. Burnett also draws on significant aspects of Milton’s own experiences in his creation of Paradise Lost. The article explores the importance of the relationship between poetic lines including their length and positioning and how it fits into other lines. Every line break or pause has a distinct purpose, according to Burnett, this allows to create “blankness and the unknown” and sometimes these pauses are often rectified in the next line resolving any “uncertainty, ambiguity, or suspense” that it previously produced in the previous lines. Milton often does this in the poem where the key verb is often suspended until the end of the line or the sentence, the purpose of this is to allow a gradual progression of ideas and events generating a greater effect and surprising twists halfway through the process. Burnett points out Milton’s Blindness as perhaps a positive influence on his ability to deliver character description so effectively.
The fact that he was blind does not take away from his attention to detail and the movement of the characters. Burnett expresses that Milton shows an acute awareness of the visual movement, and understands the visual effects produced in the lines to be just as important as the utterance if the words and verses. Milton successfully controls the movements both within the lines of the poem and the visual descriptions within the story. For instance in Book I where Satan flies up and looks at his legion of angels in Hell: “… he through the armed files, Darts his experienced eye, and soon traverse The whole battalion views, their order due”. The lineation in these lines draws the reader’s eyes and makes the reader’s eyes “dart” exactly when Satan’s does, and “traverse” precisely marks the point at which the eye must cross to view “The whole battalion”. The reader’s eyes instinctively run through the runs as Satan’s eyes simultaneously run across the battalion troops.
Moreover, Burnett puts forward Donald Davies’s analysis of Milton’s delayed disclosure of characters in Paradise Lost. Milton’s introduction of his characters is startling, for instance: ‘…One Next himself in power, and next in crime, Long after known in Palestine, and named Beelzebub”. David Daiches comments that “we are held in suspense while we are told about him, and he is named at last in a violent and ugly explosion of ‘b’s.”
Milton does this often in the poem, allowing each character’s name and identity to be wrapped in a mystery, Burnett also adds that the dramatization of the context adds to the suspense and epic mystique of the characters. Milton’s Paradise Lost can also be interpreted through a gender-based interpretation. Gender politics was not a major social discussion point in John Milton’s time. Women in the Seventeenth Century were regarded and treated and seen as inferior to men.
The first-time reading of Paradise Lost may suggest that Milton shares similar gender ideas and stereotypes as the men of his time. His preservation of the Biblical construction of the Garden of Eden seems to act as a stage to re-establish previously held conventions about gender and sexuality. Through a gendered analytical reading of the poem, we can see how Milton utilizes language in an attempt to describe and display Eve’s negative female attributes as a character, and the consequence of her actions that is often a result of her naive, ignorant and disobedient nature. Feminist criticism of the text encourages us to identify with Eve because she is a woman who holds no position of power like Adam or God, we are encouraged to challenge this male-centered outlook of Milton.
Milton does, however, both embody and undercut stereotypes and cultural assumptions of his time in his portrayal of Eve in the Garden of Eden, we see this in the poem as Eve’s physical desires through the use of the sense and the constant downplay of her mental capabilities are often stressed, thus upholding the negative gender ideology about a woman during that time. Susanne Wood’s argument, presented in Julia Walker’s article, “The idea of Milton and the Idea of Woman”, states that the ‘Hierarchy of creation is no hierarchy of value or freedom in Milton’s vision”. Milton takes apart this sense of hierarchy and power through Eve’s character, giving her a sense of individuality and freedom. Wood argues that Milton is not misogynistic but is “locked into his culture’s assumption of woman’s inferior positions.” This would contradict many of Milton’s supporters who saw him be progressive, especially in matters of the portrayal of women. Milton’s use of the Biblical version of the Fall already giving sets Eve and female characters at a disadvantage.
Satan and Eve are similar in that they both act as disobedient characters in Paradise Lost, though their transgressions are of different natures, still have huge consequences for themselves and humanity as a whole. For the most part, she actively practices obedience to God alongside her husband, Adam. Together, the couple submits to God’s authority and live out their lives in the Garden. Eventually, however, Eve disobeys and instead follows her desires. By eating the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve actively disobeys God and sets off a sequence of events that define the human condition in the centuries to follow. For her disobedience, Eve becomes a scapegoat for everything that leads on from this moment. Sara Gilbert sees Milton as a misogynist, arguing that Milton’s Eve is Adam’s inferior and satanically inspired. Gilbert believes that because ‘Milton’s myth of origins is summarizing a long misogynistic tradition,’ Milton’s work and his personal opinions are both misogynistic.
However, we could also argue that perhaps Milton’s enabling Eve to be tempted like Satan is a way of allowing her to subvert the patriarchal discourse of gender hierarchy. For instance, when Eve expresses: ‘And what is Faith, Love, Vertue unassailed, Alone, without exterior help sustained? Let us not then suspect our happy State Left so imperfect by the Maker wise, As not secure to single or combined. Fraile is our happiness if this is so, And Eden was no Eden thus exposed.” Milton’s thoughts are intertwined with Eve’s here as she seems to argue that temptation is necessary, otherwise, there would be no understanding of the importance of Paradise.
Moreover, In ‘Patriarchal Poetry,’ Sandra Gilbert notes that Eve is often excluded and hidden from God and the angels whenever they appear. At important moments she is seen ‘drugged and silenced by divinely ordained sleep’. The reasons for the absence and sleep, however, are most definitely to do with her gender as a woman and all the negative traits that come with it. When the angel speaks with Adam, Eve is dismissed and sent away. She retires to the garden where she “sat retired in sight. With lowliness Majestic from her seat”. Unlike Adam she does not have any intentions of knowing about the world, Milton here presents her as being vacuous and shallow. However, she does come back and eavesdrop on the conversation. This can be viewed as both sexist and feminist, in the sense Milton depicts her as being a woman who is indecisive and unable to keep away as she has been instructed. It is also empowering because she is shown as a strong defiant character by showing an interest in her the world.
According to Gilbert, a submissive Eve would not have stayed away and been obedient. Edward S. LeComte points out that: “The faith and morals…which Milton held were not, needless to say, those of a misogynist…In common with the men of his time and those of preceding periods, and more moderately than many, he did believe that women had their ‘not equal’ place and should keep it”. Furthermore, Eve’s uniqueness as a character is established immediately upon her entrance into the text. Milton seems to hint at subtle disobedience from her very first appearance, instead of turning her gaze towards Heaven and looking to God’s power.
Eve does the complete opposite, she focuses on the earth and glimpses her reflection in the water: “A Shape within the watery gleam appeared Bending to look on me, I started back, It started back, but pleased I soon returned, Pleas’d it returned as soon with answering looks”. Eve’s actions here seem to uphold the stereotypical view about women and narcissism. Her lack of acknowledgment of God and her obsession with her reflection can be interpreted as somewhat vain and self-centered. However, her actions can also seem very typical of someone who has only just been created into this new world and is experiencing everything around her and her appearance for the first time. Her intentions seem pure and innocent as her fascination with her reflection is an act of admiration of God’s capabilities. He has created such perfect beings that they cannot help but admire themselves in their perfectness. The only problem is that in all of her admiring, she doesn’t acknowledge or directly praise God as Adam did when he too was created, rather idolizing him indirectly through her admiration of the world around her and her physical appearance.
Therefore, Eve’s only failure here is the inability to obey God directly in the same way Adam has. Eve is aware of her position as a woman and understands this bond between Adam and God, and is therefore aware of her disadvantage and is not able to establish a similar relationship with God. Because of this indirect connection with God, she cannot obey him in the same way as Adam can, and is fully aware of this inequality though not able to resolve it, hence she declares Adam as: “My Author and Disposer, what thou didst / Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains, / God is thy law, thou mine”. She seems to make clear her obedience to Adam as her husband, attributing Adam with the power of creation and through him only is she obedient to God.
Nevertheless, she is very much obedient to God despite their distant relationship. Milton takes advantage of this distance between Eve and God by challenging Eve’s loyalty and obedience to God and her husband. Milton does this in the form of Satan hoping that, by “inspiring venom, he might taint / Th’ animal Spirits that from pure blood arise”. His attempt to appeal to Eve’s basic human instincts as a means of weakening her defenses and breaking her obedience to God. He hopes that his “Devilish art” will poison her “pure blood” enough to cause her doubts and question what she previously accepted and desired that was strictly forbidden for her. She hears a “gentle voice” in her dream believing it to be her husband’s voice, she blindly obeys it without any lingering doubts as his obedience to the voice of Adam overrides her reason. she believes that by following the voice she is obeying her husband and also God.
Since God has kept her and Adam ignorant of the evil that could be lurking around them, Milton attempts to reserve any judgments towards her actions at this point. the voice tempts her to take a and the power of the fruit: ‘Even to my mouth of that same fruit held part. Which he had plucked; the pleasant savory smell So quickened appetite, that I, methought, Could not but taste.’ By placing the fruit in her mouth, it becomes even more tempting for Eve, her resistance wavers at this point. Satan’s offering of the same fruit he tasted and placing the fruit in her mouth seems very intimate. there is an obvious sexual undertone displayed here, this moment suggests that not only eating the same fruit Satan has, on to the same spot Satan has, is a transgression against God but also a sexual transgression against Adam.
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