Milton with His Background
"Paradise Lost" and the Seventeenth Century Reader. By B. Rajan. (Chatto and Windus. 10s. 6d.)
Tim rehabilitation of Milton after a recent vogue of depreciation is significant. The interest in Paradise Lost is inexhaustible, and in the large output of books on Milton, in this country and in America, most of the writers have had something fresh to say which had escaped the notice of previous critics. Some of the books have been more concerned with Milton as thinker than as poet, and literary critics, not always well equipped, have found themselves obliged to examine his theology, especially in dealing with the relation of the epic to the posthumous treatise, De Doctrina Christiana. In the long-fought duel between Professor Sewell and Professor Maurice Kelley, Mr. Rajan, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, decides, perhaps too easily, that Professor Kelley has proved " conclusively ' that the poem and the treatise are contem- porary. He does not, however, accept Professor Kelley's inference that "the De Doctrina should be decisive in any question of inter- preting Milton's epic." He stresses the difference of aim in the poem ; Milton did not mean his readers to read the epic as an exposition of his own systematic theology, but rather as a poem which takes for granted the common theological background of his contem- • poraries this background "is the property not of a person but of an epoch." Mr. Rajan, therefore, seeks to see Paradise Lost through the eyes of the seventeenth-century reader, and he illustrates the general outlook by many alit quotations from little-known writings of Milton's day.
With this clue Milton's view of women is seen less as a personal opinion than as a reflection of "the deepest and most impersonal feelings of the time," based on the accepted hierarchical order. Again, Satan was in Milton's day no symbolic abstraction of an evil principle but ever-active spirit, so powerful that man needed all God's grace to escape his toils. The early readers of Paradise Lost were in no danger of being deluded by "the sympathy for Satan which the poetry imposes " ; his qualities only made him the more formidable. They would not see him as Promethean or farcical. If he had not been presented as really powerful, his resumed contest with the Almighty would be not only foredoomed but senseless. Mr. Rajan is, .perhaps, less convincing when he says that "no one in seventeenth-century England seriously considered himself as damned " ; the mental anguish of such a book as Grace Abounding seems to tell the other way Mr. Rajan finds, as others before him, that Milton is far less successful in depicting God the Father than Satan ; there is less of awe and rapture in the heavenly scenes than we might have expected, and the "routine choruses" of the angels hardly satisfy us. Mr. Rajan, also like others, finds the last two Books of Paradise Lost disappointing. He attributes the pessimistic note to the Puritan view of man's total depravity, but thinks that, if the prevailing note is pessimistic, this was not the poet's intention. Milton was serious in suggesting that man might find a "Paradise within" that would compensate him for the loss of Eden, but the poem suffers a little from the author having lost some of the spirit with which he began it.
One of the most interesting chapters in Mr. Rajan's book draws out the sustained symmetry of heaven and hell. We have all of us noticed the parallelism between the Great Consult in Pandemonium when Satan offers to visit the new-created earth to seduce man and the heavenly conference when the Son of God offers to go there as Redeemer, but Mr. Rajan finds many other parallels. The infernal doors "on their hinges grate harsh thunder," but when heaven's gates open there is "harmonious sound on golden hinges moving." Sin and Death with Satan constitute "a kind of infernal Trinity," and Sin looks forward to sitting at Satan's right hand, just as the Son is seated beside the Father in "high collateral glorie." Mr. Rajan notes precedents for the apple being an intoxicant, though he thinks it a conceit which Milton does not intend his readers to believe.
On the other hand, he gives some instances where Milton departs from the all but universally accepted opinion of his day. It was usual to hold that the angels fell during and not before the creation, but Milton needs the latter view to frame an effective pattern for the poem: "The fall of the angels is used to motivate the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the creation of man is presented as a divine counter to remedy the damage done by the fall." He is justified as poet in adopting an account which no contemporary of his except the royalist Peter Heylyn adopts. There is an apologetic reference in the " argument " of Book I to that view having been held by "many ancient Fathers." It is not that he shares this opinion as a matter of belief, and in any case St. Augustine and St. Thomas regarded it as indifferent, but it has a poetic justification. It is interesting, too, that Calvin, like Milton, took the words of Genesis, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil," to be an ironic comment.
Not all Mr. Rajan's ingenious inferences will be generally accepted, but his close reading of the text and his wide reading in the literature of the time make his book a useful contribution to our under- standing of the form and content of the great epic.
F. E. HUTCHINSON.