"Majestic Unaffected Style":
Quakerism and Improvement in Paradise Regained

Christopher Kendrick

 

"The Presence in the Midst," J. Doyle Penrose, 1916


1. "Lower is higher" in the 1671 volume

     1. The general topic for consideration in this essay is the late Milton's departure from the Grand Style, especially as this is exemplarily effected in Paradise Regained.1 It is a biographical-canonical topic -- or not just a topic, but a theme, emerging from the links among the major works. The theme is established in the last two books of Paradise Lost, where the turn to typological chronicle coincides with a lowering of the stylistic register. Lexically, this means a reduction of the copious element: fewer ornamental words, less variation, less profuse redundance. Syntactically -- and more importantly -- it means a curtailment of periodic sweep in favor of the magisterial-propositional. The opening of Paradise Regained, measuring its terseness so determinedly against the rapt flight of the "diffuse" epic's inductions, so soberly dividing the poet's identity (first verse-paragraph) from the role of the muse (second verse-paragraph), announces a further lowering of stylistic level. It is a pyrotechnically middle style2:

I who erewhile the happy garden sung,
By one man's disobedience lost, now sing
Recovered Paradise to all mankind,
By one man's firm obedience fully tried
Through all temptation, and the tempter foiled
In all his wiles, defeated and repulsed,
And Eden raised in the waste wilderness.3

The opening lines of Paradise Lost announce that poem's topic in a genitive clause that is only two lines shorter than this opening verse-paragraph.

     2. So the departure from the Grand Style continues into and through the 1671 volume. That is how I want to put it, though admittedly it sounds somewhat strange. Why not just allow that the departure has happened in Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes? Why not say that they represent, not departures, but independent stylistic acts, which are securely plain-style, or at least unGrand, in kind, though of course only relatively, and variously, so? To put the general change in this latter way will entail understanding it, given rules of decorum, as a function of generic descent: the middle style of Paradise Regained being right for brief epic, and the barbarous uneven splendor of Samson Agonistes appropriate to a classical tragedy crafted from Old Testament material. If a case is to be made for putting style first, and preferring, as a way of understanding the change, the figure of exodus to that of descent, this is because it accents a certain continuous ethical militance, palpable in the very form of the later works. I refer to the respect in which the generic descent itself comes across as being undertaken not for variety's sake so much as for virtue's, the sense in which the poems are offered not just as equal in their way to, but indeed as better than, the great predecessor poem -- as ethical and also aesthetic improvements upon it.

     3. It may seem a counter-intuitive proposition that the 1671 poems are offered as superior in kind; and that they thus would enact a revision, or at the least provoke a rethinking, of the hierarchy of genres. But even readers of Paradise Regained who find it a disappointing sequel will know what is meant. One need only consider the import of Satan's final verbal temptation, his offer of the pagan cultural storehouse. These things are not necessary, says the Son, they add nothing to the Hebrew wisdom. If not to the Son, then no more are they essential to those who believe in and follow him, nor to the true Christian poet; and it would not be in keeping with the poem's spirit, its construction of the Christian ethos, to submit that a poet who combined or coordinated the Hebrew wisdom with classical learning is doing something better than the one who sticks to essentials. The spirit of this poem tends rather to the contrary position -- which explains, one supposes, why Milton would not hear Paradise Regained declared inferior to Paradise Lost, even though it evidently was by many.

     4. The case that Samson Agonistes is offered as an equal or superior poem to Paradise Lost is not so easy to be made, since though it too features a thematic restriction to Hebrew essentials, it resurrects Greek tragedy and makes use of extra-Old Testament wisdom, and in these ways rivals Milton's classical epic on its own ground. But many well-informed Miltonists have persisted in seeing it as his consummate work.4 And stronger evidence than this is to be found in its parallel or companion status to Paradise Regained, as another Biblical case study, another analysis of the One Just Man theme. But perhaps the best way of suggesting that it too is making a kind of generic claim is by reminding the reader of the place of tragedy in the generic review conducted by Milton in the Preface to the second book of The Reason of Church Government. It is presented as equivalent to the epic in loftiness, possibly indeed as more effectively instructive to a nation; but the possibility is only imminent, depending on Reformation's creation of an appropriate environment, and audience. These were not delivered. So Samson was offered in 1671 as a tragedy without a venue, a public; it can envisage being staged, which is to say published in the full sense, only in a nation which has succeeded in the reforming of reformation itself. It thus indirectly figures this society, in which its darkness would be light, would be readily legible. Understood this way, it makes a certain aggressive claim for itself and its relatively uncopious, and clotted, medium.5

     5. Now neither the deliberate lowering of style, nor the claim associated with it, have gone unnoticed or unexplained. One would expect such a basic move to have several motives and meanings, and to be explicable in several different ways or contexts. What I mainly want to do here is suggest the relevance of an emerging understanding of labor, or more precisely of the emergence of a labor theory of value, to the late Milton's departure. To do this, I propose to consider the thematics of labor and of the calling in Paradise Regained, and the way style figures in these thematics. But before moving to that -- or rather as a way of moving to that -- let us take note of other contexts in terms of which the paradoxical claim (lower is higher) has been understood.

 

2. The Nonconformist context

     6. One explanation of the claim, a strong one, is that it is delivery a long time coming on a promise made long before. From the moment of Milton's becoming a poet in earnest, his work deployed in particularly unruly ways the tension between more florid and more plain, or between copious and godly, aesthetics characteristic of much seventeenth-century religious lyric -- a tension most familiarly and indefatigably rehearsed in Herbert's The Temple, where it is rendered into a kind of reflexive, paradoxically ritualized and comfortable, anti-idolatry. One can argue from the evidence of the early poetry that Milton cultivated classical learning so as to enlarge the category, operative within his practice of poetry as well as of his belief well before it received theoretical articulation in Areopagitica, of "things indifferent" -- practices, ideas, and forms, that is, that had not been stipulated in Scripture for the religious community, and which a right-minded church, in his view, must then leave to individuals to debate and decide. Milton liked and promoted a wide idea of indifference both because this was to broaden the realm of individual freedom, but also, paradoxically, so as to be able to declare indifferent practices dispensable, to be in a position to profess their purging. And since the "Nativity Ode", whose last movement luxuriates in describing the silencing of the pagan gods at Christ's birth, he had frequently been at the professing. The moment of the Grand Style, considered from the perspective of his whole career as a poet, in fact marks a -- partial -- exception to the rule that copia should be kept visibly under check -- an exception motivated by the need to find a style answerable to prelapsarian history. As the state of the world now is, the leaner, more matter of fact and moderate, middle style of Paradise Regained is to be considered the norm.

     7. To this general explanation from religion -- or more precisely, from the English church's compromised Calvinism and from Milton's congenital Arminianism -- one wants to add a more specific biographical determinant: the change his religion apparently underwent in the year leading up to the Restoration. This is recorded most clearly and memorably in the Treatise of Civil Power of 1659, and might be described as a lapse into the Christian rudiments. He may have come to believe that Christianity was a faith of the book and individual conscience, and little more, in the works that broke with Presbyterianism, but he did not in them say so repeatedly, as he does in A Treatise of Civil Power. And if the Congregationalism of those works was implicit, it was authentic; whereas the express Congregationalism of Civil Power is procedural, and no longer carries with it the conviction that collective searching and worship is essential to Christian faith. The simplification and subtraction enacted in this tract and moment, the sense given of clutching at staying pillars in the caving building, of navigating by remnant truths in the tempestuous dark, informs both 1671 poems -- the narrative strategy of subtraction in Paradise Regained, the typological cloudiness of Samson Agonistes. And this newly rudimentary character of faith makes sense of the implicit claim that these poems' generic descent ought in fact to be understood as a move upwards, that a more sober middle style is what is really high "for us", for the Christian community at the moment.

     8. Even if Milton's religion became more individualistic with the onset of Restoration, he of course wasn't alone in going through such a change (anymore than he had been alone in his previous, probably more profound, change). Recognizing this leads one toward a somewhat different explanation for the stylistic departure of the last poems, what might be called a religious-political one. Milton critics for some time now have been arguing against the traditional tendency to read Milton's major works as monuments of a past even when they were published, whether they were out of date for being Renaissance or for being revolutionary (this last in the sense of being consumed, gripped, by the pre-Restoration past). No, Milton kept up, he didn't give up on the present, it's said, and the texts intervene, surreptitiously as they must, in current affairs and debates. This claim has been made, and to some extent demonstrated, for the 1671 poems much more often than for Paradise Lost.6

     9. I think the case is convincing, but should not only be framed, as it sometimes is, in narrowly topical terms.7 For the big event to which the 1671 poems respond is not a particular context or issue of controversy; it is the emergence of Nonconformism as a settled fact of national life -- paradoxically the single most tangible and enduring "achievement" of the revolution -- and the attendant reshaping of the reading public.8 The 1671 volume, particularly Paradise Regained, with its stress on the non-political character of messiahship, its typing out of a holy community knowing its solidarity as a host of individuals maintaining inner peace under harrassment, may be felt to take formal account of this fact: its first audience is Nonconformist and above all Quaker. The ruptural effect of the Quaker movement, captured vividly by Hill and Reay, tends to have been lost in the very literary criticism that has most competently demonstrated the relevance of Quakerism to the poem's themes and terms.9 So it is worth stressing the structural centrality of Quakerism to early nonconformism: as the group, or rather the diffuse movement, that inherited the radical legacy of both Levellers and Diggers; as the only rurally based radical sect (a huge strategic advantage, this); and as the group whose unprecedented growth, all the more fearful to the ruling class for the appeal of its strategic honesty to several of its members,10 certainly hastened, if it did not indeed precipitate, the Restoration of the Stuarts.11 Milton was no more a Quaker than he was a sectarian of any sort. Still the negative, defensive separatism of the pre-Restoration pamphlets put evangelicism and republicanism together in a way that must have been intended to accommodate Quakerism; and in 1671 this separatism came to reveal a more positive side. In other words, the rigorously separatist construction of Reformation society held to in the pre-Restoration pamphlets comes in the 1671 works clearly to reveal a compatibility or elective affinity with the cultural mentality of Nonconformity.

     10. The poems reveal this affinity, not so much by foregrounding Quakerish themes such as suffering and the inner light, as by cultivating with a difference the thematics of work and prophecy. More precisely, Milton's stylistic departure tailors itself to Restoration Quakerism (and Nonconformity in general) by bringing style itself into contact with these thematics, or making the stylistic level legible as a matter of work. Milton's return to the basics, and reconstruction, of epic poetics alludes to the refounding of sectarianism as Nonconformity. The stylistic moderation of Paradise Regained figures at a distance the Quaker moderation: that is, it calls up, not just the ideal of moderation which was to distinguish Friendly culture from other varieties of Nonconformity and secure its place in society, but also the Quakers' accommodating postRestoration move to moderation. The "majestic unaffection" of Milton's poem about the first invention of Christianity is indeed concerned to offer a militant reading of the Friends' -- ongoing -- moderation into moderation.12

     11. Meanwhile, this tailoring brings the poems' thematics into partial homology with another discursive element, that of emergent political economy or what was sometimes called the discourse of improvement. My sense is that this next suggestion -- that the poem conveys what it does about the spirit of Christianity by insistent allusion to a socio-economic problematic -- will raise a reflexive skepticism in many readers. It ought to be enough to set the ideology-divining rods quivering to note that, in discussions of the early modern period, connections between religious and political areas or discourses are routinely invoked, and generally allowed to stand to reason.13 But why, if early-modern religion is allowed to be always political, should it not be economic? One could simply observe that since, in the period before the so-called separation of church and state, religious arguments were invariably ecclesiastic, they were always rather directly about the organization of a key part of the state, and hence indirectly about economic organization. But in this phase we are living through of widespread religious revival (the so-called return of fundamentalisms), it ought not to be difficult to recognize the validity of a stronger proposition, that religions in their nature -- at least all known monotheisms -- claim to constitute culture, and hence peoples, and hence society. They claim to be political, and economic too, in a more primary sense, then, than what we usually understand by those terms; moreover, so long as the claim to be constitutive is actively believed -- loosely speaking, so long as most people are religious -- the claim will be in some measure valid. So it would be remarkable if a proposal for significant religious change did not contain a general economic dimension, for example, and in it allude to, or play upon elements from what in its light is the secondary, more specialized economic discursive field.

     12. Thus it ought not to be surprising that one finds in Quaker strategy and discourse basic parallels with the discourse of improvement. Consider the following brief, but exceedingly rich, passage from George Fox's journal. It needs to be prefaced that Fox's usual strategy for spreading the Word on his travels required his attending a sermon at the church of the town he had entered. When the sermon was over, he would stand and challenge the preacher to defend his message and position, and then, once the clergyman had ducked the challenge and ignominiously dismounted from the pulpit (or so it worked in the ideal scenario -- which is to say, not infrequently in the pages of the journal), Fox would address from the floor the admiring layfolk who remained. But on a few fortunate occasions, as in a Yorkshire town in 1651 where bells rang upon his entrance to announce that he would preach from the pulpit, he was assured of an audience in advance. Then he preferred to forego church as well as pulpit:

Soe I declared to ye people: yt I cared not to hold uppe there Idolls temple nor tyths nor priests but to declare against ym: & opnd to ye people all there traditions: & yt peice of Grounde was noe more holy then another peice of Grounde: & yt they shoulde know yt there bodyes were to bee ye temples of God & Christ & soe to bringe ym of all ye worlds hireling teachers to Christ there free teacher.14

     13. He is urging the people to think about the sacred, and about sacred ground, in a new way, or in the way that the Bible that tells them their body is the true temple has already told them to do. Note that the strategy prevents one from thinking of land and body as mere figures for spirit: the steeplehouse whose shape is meant to mark it as higher and holier, and the university-educated preacher in his pulpit in said steeplehouse, are cast as the places whither tithes --the land's surplus and the people's wealth -- are siphoned and locked up. The sacred as defined by the church in power is shown up as a misuse of land, goods, and spirit; it is an obscenely spatial strategy of oppression. Fox and Friends at this point want to free the sacred -- to return religion to the open air, to houses, to the people who make their bodies temples. Clearly the reconfiguration of town space envisaged would involve one important economic change; it would do away with an onerous tax. Beyond this, Fox's version of Christianity mandates no specific changes that we would call economic. Nonetheless, it is essential to the appeal of his plan that it should be cheaper and more effective, more productive of true religion, than what is in place. And in this fundamental respect, there is an unmistakeable reference to the discourse of, and debates about, agrarian improvement.

     14. It is because religion is inherently economic, and because the Quaker reinterpretation of Christianity both deliberately and necessarily addressed the context of agrarian practice and discourse, that Milton's most Quaker poem should also seem his most economic one, and can invoke at a distance the idea and problematic of agrarian improvement, as well as Quaker moderation. This is why it is not hard to pin religious and political-economic contexts together in a punning reading, by saying, for example, that the stylistic drop in Paradise Regained offers itself as an economizing improvement which pays off in new and altered prophetic returns, in narrative dividends. But such formulations are useful only if they serve as spurs to thought, and lead to reflection upon the conditions of congruence between religious and economic discourses. For despite overlap, the contexts are of course not in fact the same, nor can the poem's relation to them be.

 

3. Improvement: land and labor as alternate explanations of value

     15. Let me turn now to the improving, or economic, context, less well known in literary-critical circles than that of Nonconformity. There is no space here, of course, for what I would be unable to deliver if there were -- a comprehensive presentation of "economic discourse" in the latter part of the seventeenth century. I will be concerned more narrowly with a set of questions about the value of land and of labor, questions that are of consistent interest in the economic literature, and with formulating them in such a way as to make a relationship with certain basic features of Milton's thematics in the 1671 volume visible. I should perhaps say that I will be assuming, what many have argued, that England was an agrarian capitalist country before it became a fully fledged industrial one if it ever did become one; and that the emergence of political economy had the recent history of transformation on the land as its condition.15 Two of the works I want to discuss are pamphlets on agrarian improvement, propaganda and how-to books for farmers and landowners. I will be moving toward a brief consideration of the more abstract work of William Petty, who wrote how-to books for the landowners' state.

     16. Cressy Dymock's A Discoverie for Division or Setting out of Land (London, 1653) might seem an anomalously radical text with which to begin. Its publication authorized by Samuel Hartlib when the large-scale draining of the fens in and around Lincolnshire was on the government's agenda, Dymock's short pamphlet was on its face simply about fenlands, about how they should be drained and what they should look like afterwards.16 Dymock's notion was that the "recovered" land should be set out according to a grid plan: the resulting picture was a lot like large parts of the U.S. Midwest today, except with the farms much smaller, one to a square, and with the lines of the grid actually etched into the land in the form of streams and ditches. A more proximate analogy would be with large parts of the later eighteenth-century English landscape, after the great wave of Parliamentary enclosures which permitted the streamlining of as yet unenclosed land.17 This latter analogy might indeed be understood as something like a prediction, since Dymock's proposal was utopian in the sense that it was intended to be exemplary to the whole country, and not just the fens. That is, the sorts of economy it sees as adhering to the grid's implantation on (former) fenland would also for the most part attend the gridding of other areas or kinds of land.

     17. Two points are in order about Dymock's plan. First, it envisages the virtual reconstruction of the land, by means of a single, evidently massive, effort, so as to make of it a new thing, a new machine which will go on producing in perpetuity if only minimal efforts of maintenance are provided. Second, this labor of maintenance, along with much of the work of farming itself, is very carefully taken into account, and scanned as it were or analyzed, by and within the plan. In his exposition Dymock shows himself to be intent on cutting down on waste labor; he so loves the grid largely because it makes the labor done on any one farm a more or less immaculate quantity (that is, it is not confusable with labor on other farms), and puts the various aspects of the farm plant within the easiest conceivable reach of the laborer. Dymock does not actually reconstruct the labor process as it then existed on the farm (unless one counts the grid-farm as a new machine); but he makes the minimization of laboring expenditure possible, given the form of the labor process. He thus brings into view the possibility of understanding the value of the land, precisely by virtue of its miraculous contrast with its former state, as a function of the labor-time required on it to produce a certain amount of product.

     18. Dymock's plan looks less radical if read alongside Walter Blith's The English Improver Improved, or The Survey of Husbandry Surveyed (1653), generally considered a canonical piece of improving literature, and yet another Hartlib-published text, which finds occasion to recommend Dymock's work in its discussion of fen-drainage.18 The title can be used to gloss what is most impressive about the work. In the first place, as "survey" suggests, it aspires to be comprehensive, to review all of the ways and means by which husbandry has and continues to become more productive. There are twelve areas. Floating lands, draining fens, un-depopulating enclosures, converting lands ruined by the plough, assessment of soils, and replanting forests: these comprise the first six. Recommendations as to the deployment of crops either new to or underused in England take up five of the last. It may be, of course, that Blith misses a few areas. But surely twelve is enough to seem comprehensive, and to establish improvement as a many-fronted project. And Blith figures it as a project on the move. As the reflexive irony of the title suggests, Blith's book represents improvement itself as an art or discipline if it had not been that before, whose object, henceforth sure to be subject to constant ministration and change, is agricultural productivity itself in its sundry avatars.

     19. Clear as he is on the need for work in the art of improvement, Blith is messier than Dymock when it comes to the question of how to think of the value of the land improved. This is how Blith tends to figure the effects of improvement.

Suppose some man of great credit should say, Sir, you have two hundred Acres in such a place, what if I should lay you a hundred more in the midst of them? Hee would wonder at it; yet because of the credit of him that spake it, he doth not wholly disdaine it, and if it could bee done, he deserved thanks for it; but he doth doe it really, though not in kind, that advanceth or Improves the Land but one third part, that makes Two Acres as good as Three, much more he that makes One as good as Three or Five, or Ten, as before this watering businesse be done shall clearely appeare. [the watering business concerns the proper way to dig ditches in the floating of lands] (p. 19)

Why is the increase in productivity fantasized this way, as added land? It must mainly be because Blith is adopting the landlord's spontaneous point of view, and thinking of rent as equivalent to land. But the figure of the man of credit is an interesting complication: he pretty clearly stands for Blith himself, or the worth of the trait that he embodies, ingenuity; and also, on a little reflection, he has to do with the capital outlay necessary if the improvement in question is to be undertaken. But then why should the outlay have such miraculous effects? Part of the answer to that question is to be found in the presence of another agent of value.

Many more presidents of this nature, are visible in many parts of this Nation, Some as great Improvments as these, Some lesse, and yet very great; And all done without any other Cost or expence of charge, in any other materialls than Poore mens labours: Which to me is a second Argument of Incouragement, to promote all workes of this nature under these Capacities. (26)

Blith is of course saying here that another great advantage of an improving milieu is that it puts the poor on work, and he is evidently, and understandably in light of historical circumstances, taking the existence of a cheap labor pool for granted. Still the passage does offer, however briefly, another equivalent ("Poore mens labours") for the increased value of the improved land, and, if one considers that the work of the improvement in question, floating, is ongoing, it glances, if not at another way of understanding the increase, at least to another important factor. To this list of determinants one needs to add market principles (supply and demand) in themselves: especially in the discussion of new crops, which were mostly advocated for less rich, and by tradition less valuable, soils, it appears that the value of land is a function of the market -- that the market can create the equivalent of new acres.

     20. Blith's was a practical work; or if you will it was a work on the theory of improvement itself rather than on how to understand it. Reflections on the value of land and of the products of husbandry are strictly by the way. The person who addressed these problems directly and most forcefully, according to the economic historians, was William Petty, who was forced to confront the problem of the value of land, and who worked toward his solution, in the process of administering the Down Survey.19 This survey project was first undertaken of Irish rebels' lands, with the aim of dividing up the spoil so as to pay off those who had funded Cromwell's decimation of the populace and the arrears of his army. Petty won fame for expanding the survey to include many more lands and seeing it through with amazing expedition. Petty's survey in effect envisaged the improving of Ireland. That is, in surveying and deciding on Irish lands' distribution, he not only made an assessment of their current worth, but of their value in light of their "improvability" -- and this is what finally accounts for the survey's legendary status.

     21. Though Petty imparted considerably more order to the problem of value than anyone before, he left it, as David McNally has shown, having offered two separate solutions to it. On the one hand, it appeared to him mainly as the problem of how to explain rent -- this fact itself is key -- and he managed this by coming up with the notion of the "day's food". The rent of a piece of land was equal to the surplus it produced over the value of the means of subsistence of its inhabitants (the day's food); this quantity, the surplus, was conceived of as intrinsic to the land itself. On the other hand, in another area of his political arithmetic, when discussing the value of mobile commodities, Petty did work out a (the) labor theory of value; and this -- the notion, roughly speaking, that the value of a given piece of land was a function of the amount of labor necessary to produce a given product on it -- might in fact have been used to explain rent.20

     22. The foregoing brief survey has been to demonstrate that the economic understanding of labor in this period was becoming fundamentally dual -- alternately constituting its own explanation, as it were, and referring to an enclosing explanatory ground outside itself. This demonstration will seem far enough removed from Paradise Regained. But does it not stand to reason that the ambiguity or duality in question must have had a general impact, as a structure of feeling, expressing itself and eliciting responses particularly in areas associated with the economic (and what areas were not?) and where a general notion of laboring activity was at issue?

 

4. Work and will in Paradise Regained

     23. Surely there is such a duality informing the thematics of work in Paradise Regained. It will be said that it is not really work that is in question in this thematics but a figure thereof; I am not so sure, but at any rate a figure for work is all my argument needs, for it will be precisely the point that Milton alludes to the improving thematics of work, brings them into his poem, to negate them. The Son's purpose in the wilderness is to determine what his vocation consists in, to figure out what his work is: he is working toward his work, and it is no exaggeration to say that the descent into, the brooding upon, himself and history, dramatized in the Son's initial speech --

This having heard, straight I again revolved
The law and prophets, searching what was writ
Concerning the Messiah, to our scribes
Known partly, and soon found of whom they spake
I am . . . .21 --

and which coincides with the elimination of previous possibilities for action, emerges as the very type of the new Christian regime, of Christian activity. For this inspired meditative action, even if it is not shown as such in the dialogue with Satan, must be assumed to take place, and to be the real (if absent) center of gravity of the narrative. It takes the prophetic past as its object, the action of the Old Testament, and submits it to reason, thus both emptying that work of its central characteristic, that of being a gift from an external source, and raising prophecy (in lowering it, making it mute) to another level. The climax on the temple is the culmination of this rationalization: in it a consummate act of will serves as a figure for (a future form of) work -- for which neither God nor the Son's conscious action can be understood as cause.

     24. The Son's work, then, is by default cast as elimination or simplification. That we are to understand a homology as existing between his work and the tempering of linguistic medium is clear enough; but the homology might not be sufficient to thematize style, to make style register patently as a kind of work, or as the effect of work -- the less copious, more Biblical style might simply be read as decorous medium and no more thought given to it -- if Satan's temptation strategy did not bring the matter of copia saliently into the poem. There is a strong sense in which Satan is the main agent, or if not the main agent then the main worker, in Paradise Regained. His mission is as much a cognitive as an ethical one; in the curious relationship of non-relationship, the prolonged missed encounter he is represented as having with the Son, the latter occupies the position of a mysteriously new Nature, an uncannily familiar ground whose properties have withdrawn from view and which must be re-discovered. And there is a strong sense in which Satan succeeds in his cognitive mission, forces the new Property to discover itself for what it is, makes the missed encounter a productive one.

     25. His strategy as a tempter is remarkably labor-intensive; if you look at the revelation from Satan's perspective, the poem makes a case for the utility of wasted effort. On the one hand, his temptations are rather copious affairs, whose aim seems to be to distract the Son from fundamentals; and their execution entails Milton's mustering stylistic gestures reminiscent of the variousness and the elevation of Paradise Lost. The banquet temptation, at the beginning of Book II, provides perhaps the best example. Milton's description of this many-fronted spectacle stands out for its luxuriousness.

He spake no dream, for as his words had end,
Our saviour lifting up his eyes, beheld
In ample space under the broadest shade
A table richly spread, in regal mode,
With dishes piled, and meats of noblest sort
And savour, beasts of chase, or fowl of game,
In pastry built, or from the spit, or boiled,
Grisamber-steamed; all fish from sea or shore,
Freshet, or purling brook, of shell or fin. . . .
And at a stately sideboard by the wine
That fragrant smell diffused, in order stood
Tall stripling youths rich-clad, of fairer hue
Than Ganymede or Hylas, distant more
Under the trees now tripped, now solemn stood
Nymphs of Diana's train, and Naiades
With fruits and flowers from Amalthea's horn. . . . (ll. 337-45, 350-56)

More than the Son's hunger is being addressed; a vision of a different sort of life is on offer here; and that is partly what I mean by copia. But the particular bit of excess I want to note is the "forbidden fruit" motif. Satan tells the Son that he is not offering him anything proscribed, and then puts shellfish on the table among the other delicates. His idea, evidently, is to entice the Son to say, "hold on, those are shellfish, and they are proscribed", or "with my coming they are now indifferent, so I could eat them if I felt like it". But the Son does not rise to the bait, or even give a sign that he has remarked it. So, since the narrator too is mum about the ruse, it is a little bit of tempting-effort that is there, but uncommented on. A tremendous, and curious, sense of waste comes to pervade the poem, as it seems indifferent to, or to forego the acknowledgment of, several of its own more elaborate efforts. Its most exquisite effect consists precisely in this foregone credit, the unadvertised theme of buried copia.

     26. The possibility lurks, of course, that such wasted effort will not be wasted finally, that it takes, or might take, a toll somehow. We are finally supposed to understand that the renunciations entailed do not weigh on the Son, have no history with him. Still we are not to think, or to understand Satan as thinking, that the Son simply fails to notice his wiles. The other great distinguishing trait of Satan as tempter is that his design is gradualist and cumulative. His reason for moving up a scale of temptations is not so much that he wants to get the Son as cheaply as he can -- his early speeches to his cohort show him to be more aware than that -- but to weigh him down, thus to force the Son to commit to some form of positive action against him without true inspiration. Northrop Frye noted a while ago that the Son's standing on the Temple pinnacle demonstrates he has not been discomposed by the preceding ordeal22; I take it that this would be without point if we were not supposed to feel, at some level, that the Son sees and feels all the temptations, and resists them. Satan's insistent return to his score is in a sense akin to Luther's banging the book against the wall: a figure for the work that has to be done to elicit the epiphany which cannot, then, be thought of as deriving from it, which will be conceived as utterly incommensurable with the daily grind.

     27. This should be enough to justify a particular way of taking the notorious ambiguity of the climax. From one angle, Satan's ingenious and methodical search for the right temptation leads to a miraculous discovery, a wholly unexpected supernatural value which makes for a radically new religious field of play. From another angle, this discovery is but the Son's final act of elimination, a last quasi-analytical move toward the discovery of his work. In this latter dimension, the poem very nearly makes a Socinian statement: the Son acting as mere man is cast as introducing a self-possessed prophecy into the world, a prophecy whose tenor is self-possession.23 Milton registers the ambiguity, but especially the Socinian meaning, particularly effectively by rendering the first half of the climax -- or the thing itself, the Son standing -- so simply and anti-climactically; and the second half, Satan's fall, by resort to the long double simile of Antaeus and the Sphinx. It is as if the narrative medium is becoming a new thing, disclosing previously untapped powers; as if the stripping process, the temperate returns, have finally found their aim in the quiet happening, the undecorated narrative event, whose momentous significance is both underscored and utterly missed by the burst of copious celebration and situation that follows. The stylistic division that makes this deconcealing of narrative possible, the extrication of the human ethical act from out of and against the supernatural surround, comes to symbolize the space of the emerging way, the new religion itself.

     28. It is because Satan is so much the controlling agent where the phenomena are concerned, and because his strategy calls for the poet's complicity, and for stylistic reminiscences and unevenness, that the linguistic medium thus becomes thematic in Paradise Regained, possessed of at least as much symbolic force as the heroic verse of Paradise Lost and without its needing to be pointed out to the surrounding heathen. And I am tempted to venture that the claim that Paradise Regained is Milton's Georgics carries most conviction if Milton's imitation is understood as in some sense an anti-generic revision of the generic ladder, involving the installation of style itself as metaphor for a religious terrain of struggle.24 It is by making style thematic that Milton transports Virgil's rich and various problematic of nature and labor from the field of agriculture proper, the descriptive practice of which Virgil undertakes insofar as it is the ground of Roman piety and identity,25 to the wild field of ethical religion "in itself", to the question of Christianity, which he then presents very strikingly as a question of place or domain.

     29. For the Son's body, the human body, replaces the temple as the site of the holy; body, air, land are cleansed; all is changed in the Son's luminous act of standing in his calling -- an occupation, which is also a discovery, of a realm. Yet what place is it that is occupied, and what in fact does it do, how does it exist, in the world? It is good hard georgic work answering this question, or finding the Eden in which the plough can be laid down; and surely Milton intends that the Son and his way should have much of the sphinx about them. But one can be sure of two things. First, Jesus' victory is a victory of the will: either he remedies the human will by standing against Satan, or -- the better, more Socinian reading -- he demonstrates what the will has always been capable of, providing a model and proving that others can follow in his steps. But the second thing one can be sure of is that the poem is not content with a "merely" spiritual or (in modern terms) psychological reading of "willful standing"; more than that, it must mean the occupation of a site in "the world".

     30. One can suggest an answer to the question of what "will" means in worldly terms by putting together the two chief contexts discussed in this essay, to both of which I have already cast Milton's stylistic experiment as alluding. Or better, the Son's willful standing means what it does in the world of the poem because of the way the poem itself puts Nonconformity and improvement, Quakerism and capitalism, together. Their relation to one another is reminiscent in some ways, I would suggest, of the double alibi structure of the best (most developed) jokes, according to Freud.26 The basic content or message of the joke consists in a solecism, some truth ordinarily forbidden or repressed, and it can be communicated only because the form or technique of the joke, the punning or signifying play enacted in its verbal expression, draws attention from it. But then the verbal play, ordinarily considered childlike and denied to adults, is permitted only because of the more serious unconscious purpose. So the purpose is the decoy for its cover just as the cover is the decoy for it.

     31. The references to Quakerism and political economy work something like this in Paradise Regained, with the labor theory of value playing the role of darker purpose. In the first place, the Son's standing is more than a merely spiritual event because the Quakers and Nonconformists are standing, and look increasingly in 1670 as if they will go on doing so: they are the people in Milton's world who testify to the possibility of humble endurance in the face of open hostility and devious attempts at co-optation; they are the most immediately material embodiment of the Son's kingdom. But in the second place, Milton's Son would seem more experimental and improving, a stricter economist and altogether more historical, than Quaker versions; the poem distances itself from Quakerism partly by reference to the discourse of improvement, or by extending and inflecting the primary economy implicit in Quaker strategy with unFriendly rigor, almost to the borders of recognition. Now on the one hand this deepening of the Quaker reference to political economy has the effect of making the Friends seem more securely established than they probably were in 1670, conferring some of the solidity and retrospective inevitability of the "quiet" agricultural revolution onto the Nonconformist one. But on the other hand, in its rigor and militance the Son's messianic course conveys a not ungentle critique of Quaker moderation, or, perhaps more justly, a recommendation in the form of an optimistic rendering: such fierce resolution, and no concession to politics as the world knows them, is what the ethic of moderation should signify.

     32. Yet this last facet of the poem's meaning seems to me to be overshadowed rather quickly by the tremendously historically-interrogative mood of the poem, under pressure of which one must wonder what the simplification of the Quaker reformation itself means or tends toward in a longer view. From this angle, it is the Quaker moderation that distracts from and allows for another, more abstract and exploratory, statement. At its simplest, one may say that Paradise Regained tells the story of Christianity's invention as a story of improvement. To be a bit more precise and tendentious: in its Socinian moment the poem is working toward what might be called a labor theory of reformed Christian value. Or, finally, to put things more conservatively: Milton's georgic invokes the current state of the narrative of improvement -- the opposition, coming to be constitutive with the emergence of the labor theory of value, between labor and land -- in order to model the relation between the Son and the Father, the human and the divine. None of this has been to say that Milton positively engages, or even relies directly on, real practices of "improvement"; the dependence is more a matter of an allusive figurative environment than of direct subsidy. But stating the case directly has the virtue of making one see the message the style gives to be felt -- the message that if the "work of the will" in theology isn't the same as labor in political economy, it is not to be thought apart from it either.

 

 

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Notes

1 I want to thank Richard Halpern and James Holstun for reading and generously commenting on an earlier draft of the essay.

2 "Pyrotechnic" is meant to underscore that the style of Paradise Regained is not "plain" or "plainer" in any simple sense, but if anything more experimental than the epic manner of Paradise Lost. One is generally aware in Paradise Regained that Milton could be more expansive, partly because there is a good deal of syntactic play. Note, for instance, the ambiguity of the noun-participle phrases ("Recovered Paradise", "obedience tried", "tempter foiled", "Eden raised"). Are the last two coordinate with the first, and governed directly by the main verb ("sing")? Or do they follow on from the second, conveying how Paradise was recovered? Such ambiguity is utterly characteristic, and of course crucially effects one's sense of the narrative action's causality and temporality.

3 John Milton: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 619, ll. 1-7. Future references will be to this edition.

4 See especially Mary Ann Radzinowicz, Toward Samson Agonistes: the Growth of Milton's Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

5 See my "Typology and the Ethics of Tragedy in Samson Agonistes", Criticism, Vol. XXXIII, no. 1 (Winter 1991), 115-52.

6 But see now for Paradise Lost David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), ch. 10.

7 See, for example, David Quint, "David's Census: Milton's Politics and Paradise Regained", in Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson (New York: Routledge, 1987), pp. 128-47, and Laura L. Knoppers, "Paradise Regained and the Politics of Martyrdom, Modern Philology, 90, 2 (1992), 200-19 -- both good essays.

8 For the reshaping of the reading public, see esp. N. H. Keeble, The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth-Century England (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1987).

9 See Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (1972), ch. 10, and Barry Reay, The Quakers and the English Revolution (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985). For the very literary criticism, see Keeble, for example pp. 232-34; Sharon Achinstein, Literature and Dissent in Milton's England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 133-38; and especially David Loewenstein's instructive contextualization in Representing Revolution in Milton and his Contemporaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 242-68.

10 See The Journal of George Fox, ed. Norman Penney (1911: New York: Octagon Books, 1973), Vol. I, p. 29, where Fox relates that a sympathetic Justice (one Hotham, evidently from around Beverly, in Yorkshire) tells him that if it weren't for the Friends the country would have been overrun with "rantisme"; the key distinction for the Justice is that ranters will say or do anything under examination but go on believing and behaving as they do, whereas Friends are truthful.

11 See Reay, ch. 5.

12 For a rather persuasive argument that the poem's quietism is an anti-political reaction to defeat, though, see Andrew Milner, John Milton and the English Revolution (London: MacMillan Press, 1981), pp. 167-78. For Quaker moderation in the Restoration, see Reay, chapter 6.

13 Note, though, that the formula that religion has political implications ought actually to jar one's senses, insofar as it implies that religion is not inherently political. I recall here James Holstun's rebuttal (in the chapter on historical revisionism in his Ehud's Dagger [London: Verso, 2000]) of a comment by John Morrill. Morrill is criticizing the way Robert Brenner handles matters of religious belonging (in Merchants and Revolution [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993]); he is only interested in the politics of religious positions, says Morrill, and not in religion for its own sake, and so is anachronistic. But the idea of religion for its own sake, rejoins Holstun, is precisely modern: no early modern would have understood it. It might be noted here that the predominant attitude today to the Weber thesis (crudely put, that Protestantism made for capitalism rather than the other way round) is symptomatic of the reluctance to "reduce" religion and economy the one to the other. The causative correlation Weber drew is generally taken to have been empirically disproven, and the refutation then to show that one cannot explain religion in terms of economics or vice versa. Widening one's gaze a bit, one sees a familiar historical irony at work, whereby Weber succeeds in his chief rhetorical or ideological purpose by failing in his substantive one. For Weber's clear if tacit aim was to "correct" Marx's running commentary on religion in the section on commodity fetishism, in the first chapter of Volume I of Capital, by standing his theory on its head: the reason for the success of Weber's failure lies in his empiricist or "vulgar materialist" reading of Marx's dialectical notion of an affinity or compatibility between economic and religious abstraction, capitalism and Protestantism -- which erroneous reading, assumed to be Marx himself, gets thrown out with Weber's thesis on its being found faulty. From a yet wider perspective, it seems clear that one might consider the Weber thesis, and Marx's notion of affinity too, as episodes in a long tradition of explanatory narratives correlating the Reformation and the emergence of capitalism, or figuring the one in terms of the other. (The tradition is a theme in Michael McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987]; see for example the chapter on Defoe.)

14 The Journal of George Fox, p. 27. "bring ym of", in the last clause, means "bring them off", i.e., "detach them from", "eliminate their dependence on". The early Friends were forthrightly and emphatically against tithes and a professional clergy, and Milton would wholeheartedly have approved of this part of their position. I expect that he would have resonated to their stress on the inner light, and have been respectful of the idea of silent meetings (but maybe I expect this last because I myself like the idea of silent meetings). But I imagine that he would have been a bit ambivalent about perfectionism (evidently a controversial issue among the Quakers themselves); more ambivalent about the relative antipatriarchalism of their politics, which was clearly integral to the Friends' strategy ("& yet they caled us house creepers leadinge silly women captive," complains Fox, "because wee mett in houses & woulde not holde upp there preists {& temples} which they had tryed and made", p. 328); and yet moreso about "quaking", whatever that amounted to. (The Quaker leaders never describe it or stipulate it; evidently it refers both to a preaching style and to a group activity. Like "Levellers" and "Diggers", "Quakers" was invented as a term of abuse and taken over by the group, who nonetheless preferred "Friends" or "children of the light".)

15 See, for example, David McNally, Political Economy and the Rise of Capitalism: A Reinterpretation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Robert Brenner, "Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Modern Europe", The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe, ed. T.H. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 15-24; and especially now Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002).

16 For Hartlib's circle, see Charles Webster, The Great Instauration (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1976). I have treated Dymock's work somewhat more fully in my essay, "Agons of the Manor: Symbolic Responses to the Agrarian Crisis in mid-Seventeenth-Century England", in The Production of Renaissance Culture, ed. David Lee Miller et. al. (Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 33-45. Reproductions of the plans themselves are on pp. 38 and 40 of this book.

17 J. A. Yelling, Common Field and Enclosure in England, 1450-1850 (Hamden, Conn: Archon Books, 1977), pp. 121-23.

18 Walter Blith, The English Improver Improved, or the Survey of husbandry Surveyed Discovering the Improveableness of all Lands: Some to be under a double and treble others under a five or six fould.And many under a tenn fould, yea some under a Twentyfould Improvement. By Wa: Blith a lover of Ingenuity. All clearly demonstrated from Principles of Reason, Ingenuity, and late, but most Real Experiences (London, 1653).

19 Doctor William Petty, The History of the Survey of Ireland Commonly called The Down Survey (1851: London: Augustus M. Kelley, 1967).

20 David McNally, Political Economy and the Rise of Capitalism, pp. 47-53. The oscillation between ways of conceiving value is especially manifest in chapter 4 and 5 of Petty's A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions of 1662, in The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, ed. Charles Henry Hull (1899: Fairfield, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley, 1986), pp. 38-54.

21 John Milton: A Critical Edition, p. 625, ll. 259-63. And note the lines introducing the Son's speech:

Meanwhile the Son of God, who yet some days
Lodged in Bethabara where John baptized,
Musing and much revolving in his breast,
How best the mighty work he might begin
Of saviour to mankind, and which way first
Publish his godlike office now mature,
One day forth walked alone, the spirit leading,
And his deep thoughts, the better to converse
With solitude, till far from track of men,
Thought following thought, and step by step led on,
He entered now the bordering desert wild. . . . (ll. 183-93)

22 Frye, "The Typology of Paradise Regained," Modern Philology, 53 (1956), 227-38. His point is that the Son remains the perfectly humored man at the end of the temptations -- that humoral balance is shown by his balancing on the temple tower. Like most readers, I agree that Milton's temple spire is sharp, and that Christ is to be envisioned performing a nearly impossible tightroping feat when he stands (hence Satan's amazement). Rendering the tower of the Gospel versions as a needle's point was perhaps Milton's boldest interpretive move.

23 Still the most interesting and historically informed discussion of the problem of the Son's status in the poem is Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Milton's Brief Epic: The Genre, Meaning, and Art of Paradise Regained (Providence: Brown University Press, 1966), ch. 6. Cf. Stanley Fish, How Milton Works (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 344, who quotes compelling passages from Arnold Stein's Heroic Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957), pp. 128 and 224-25; though neither of these critics is willing to allow that their readings might make the poem Socinian.

24 The best and most informed argument for Paradise Regained as a revision of georgic is to be found in Anthony Low's The Georgic Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 322-52. See also Louis Martz, Poet of Exile (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 247-71.

25 See, for the role of agriculture in Roman identity, the introductory chapter to Gary B. Miles, Virgil's Georgics: A New Interpretation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

26 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1963). The poem is not meant to be funny, yet it has, if not a comic dimension, then great comic potential, and perhaps the analogy introduced here helps to explain that. Two of the better narrative analogues to Paradise Regained bring out the potential. Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" might almost be called a rewriting (Bartleby, the humble, anomic clerk who prefers not to, fills in for Jesus, and his philistine lawyer-employer for Satan); Melville had to have had Milton's poem in mind when composing it. Some time ago Kirk Fabel pointed out in a seminar that the old "Roadrunner" cartoons are generic descendents (the coyote's elaborate traps substituting for Satan's copious temptations, and the bird's rapidity replacing the Son's inspired clairvoyance).

 

 

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